Autism Sensory Issues: What is Sensory Overload & How Can You Deal with It?

I commonly hear things like, “my child’s problem behaviors are caused by sensory issues, so I don’t want to treat them like behavior issues.” I feel like there’s a lot of confusion as to whether a behavior is caused by something sensory, or if it should be treated like any other behavior. So, today I’m going to talk all about autism sensory issues, and how they can be treated.

Each week I provide you with some of my ideas about turning autism around. So, if you haven’t subscribed to my YouTube channel, you can do that now. Kids with autism have sensory issues, but the fact is, that we all have sensory issues, because we live in a world full of stimuli. Kids with autism, however, often have different reactions to those sensory issues. They have different reactions to noises, to smell, and to touch. Parents and professionals often ask, “Is it sensory or behavior?” This is a weird question as a Behavior Analyst.

Examples of sensory overload or underload

Occupational therapists may say kids are over reactive or under reactive to stimuli, especially kids with autism; I do agree with this. Here are some examples of when kids are over or under reactive to things. Some kids with autism have aversion to bright lights, and they overreact to the sense of sight. Some kids are bothered by noise, like my son Lucas, who wears headphones a lot, because he’s bothered by loud noises, especially loud noises that come on suddenly. Yet some kids often can be under responsive to language and to noise. For example, they don’t respond to their name; that is an under reactive response to some noise. Some kids can’t stand being touched, they get over reactive just by the tags in clothing, which most of us wouldn’t even notice. While other kids are under reactive to touch, and they need heavy pressure. They often jump, or seek input by running into walls, or being squished inside the sofa cushions.

Some kids have reactivity issues surrounding feeding as well. They might react to the sight of food, to the taste, the texture, the flavors, the temperature of the food, even the way food looks, like the color of foods, or brands. For example, the way macaroni and cheese looks with different brands, they may be over reactive to that, and then they refuse the food.

Handling sensory issues in children and adults

No matter if there’s over reactivity or under reactivity, or which sensory system is most affected, I’m going to cover some things that you can do. The first step to solving any problem behavior is, of course, assessment. And this needs to be a full assessment, not just looking at the autism sensory issues, which are operating all the time.

We want to do a full evaluation. It doesn’t have to be a full complex multi-disciplinary evaluation. In fact, I have a free one-page assessment (in my 3-step guide to turn autism around) that can be done pretty quickly, that takes a quick look at the whole system. Also, when we’re talking about autism sensory issues, we want to look at the sensory systems that seem to be most affected. Then we want to make a plan, which is the second step. We want to prevent problem behaviors related to sensory overload or being sensory under reactive.

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For example, we might want to invest in some noise cancelling headphones, or we may need to pair up headphones, because the child may be over reactive to sounds, but they don’t like the way the headphones feel. This involves a pairing and desensitization program. We might want to look at cutting the tags out or getting special softer clothing. We may want to have a trampoline if the child is often seeking that sensory input or offer less offensive foods. I recently did a video blog on solving picky eating, so you may want to look back at that one.

The key is, we can’t solve all autism sensory issues, especially all at once. Sensory issues must be part of an overall assessment and plan. Special clothing and modified diets for life is not the goal. We want to get the child more and more comfortable, and slowly desensitize them to tolerate more typical sensory input that we all face every day.

In summary, sensory issues are common in many children and adults, especially when there’s a diagnosis of autism. Before treating any autism sensory issues, I’d recommend an assessment of the whole child, including the language, social skills, behavior problems, safety awareness, leisure skills, and sensory issues.

Once an assessment is completed and you’ve made a plan of action, putting antecedent strategies in place to help the child be more comfortable is key. If you watched the video or read this post, I’d love it if you would leave me a comment, give me a thumbs up, and share the video/post with others who might benefit.

To learn more about how to help children with autism, you can sign up for one of my free online workshops today that will help you increase language and decrease problem behaviors in your child or client with autism. I’ll see you right here next week.

Want to get started on the right path and start making a difference for your child or client with autism?
SIGN-UP FOR DR. MARY BARBERA’S FREE TRAINING