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What Happens When Children with Autism Process Sensory Information?

By Lauren Lowry
Hanen Certified Speech Language Pathologist and Hanen Staff Member

For many years it has been thought that individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have difficulty processing and integrating information obtained from their senses, such as sights, sounds, things they touch, etc. However, while families and clinicians have reported these types of difficulties, little research has yet to discover or explain the sensory integration problems in individuals with ASD.

A study comparing sensory integration in children with and without autism

Recent research from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York has reported evidence that children with ASD have difficulties with multisensory integration (defined by Wikipedia as “the study of how information from the different sensory modalities, such as sight, sound, touch, smell, self-motion and taste, may be integrated by the nervous system.” An article in Science Daily on August 20, 2010 titled “Autism Linked to Multisensory Integration” reported that while typically developing children experienced a different and stronger response to two different, but simultaneous sources of sensory input than they did to just one kind of sensory input (a sound or a vibration), children with autism didn’t show a pronounced difference to the single or dual sensory input. In addition, the children with autism took 50% longer to process the sensory information than the typically developing children and the integration was at a much lower level. This shows that it was much more effortful and less efficient for children with autism to process sensory information.

Hanen’s views on the news

This study confirms that there is indeed a difference between the sensory integration in children with and without autism. It also validates two key principles of The Hanen Centre's approach to helping parents understand and work with their child’s sensory difficulties:

1. Reduce competing sensory input

If there are competing sources of sensory information, a child will not be able to send messages well nor listen to or process parents’ messages. Therefore, it makes sense to minimize any competing sensory information by:

  • turning off the TV or music
  • removing toys if there are too many in the environment

2. Discover what sensations the child likes and dislikes

Careful observation and listening using the “Observe, Wait, and Listen” strategy from More Than Words® - The Hanen Program for Parents of Children on the Autism Spectrum can help parents discover:

  • their child’s preferred sensory environment
  • when their child may be experiencing sensory overload
  • the sensations that a child likes and dislikes

Parents who participate in a More Than Words® program complete a Sensory Preferences checklist (pages 10-14 in the More Than Words parent guidebook), which helps them understand some of their child’s seemingly strange behaviour. Understanding a child’s sensory likes and dislikes also helps them build motivating games and activities around their child’s preferred sensations. For example, children who like movement can be engaged in jumping and bouncing games with the parent, which offer an enjoyable way to learn to take turns and use specific actions, gestures or words.

If you would like to learn more about how Hanen's More Than Words resources can help parents of children with autism spectrum disorder, click here. For more information about the More Than Words Program, click here.

In summary...

This study provides some much needed evidence regarding the difficulties that children with ASD experience when they encounter competing or multisensory information, making it easier for parents and professionals to understand why children with autism do things such as rub or spin objects, rock, jump, flap and run. There are many ways parent and professionals can work around, accommodate and even take advantage of children’s sensory preferences. Hanen helps parents optimize the child’s sensory environment, which allows interaction and communication to be much more successful.

References

Albert Einstein College of Medicine (2010, August 20). Autism linked to multisensory integration. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 7, 2010, from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/08/100819173840.htm

Sussman, F. (1999). More Than Words: Helping Parents Promote Communication and Social Skills in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Toronto: The Hanen Centre.