>Autism Series #2:


If you missed the first part of this series, please read this post first

I’ll start with my disclaimer…it’s important!

First, a disclaimer:

  • I am in no ways any kind of expert on Autism.
  • If you hear someone say they’re an expert on Autism…run away as fast as you can. Autism is such a new and growing phenomenon, and there is not enough information for anyone to be an expert right now.
  • Every child with Autism is different. I can tell stories about the children I have come into contact with, but it is SO hard to generalize across the wide spectrum.
  • This series is meant to increase awareness of these amazing children, and to help people who don’t deal with Autism on a daily basis a little bit of a better understanding of Autism Spectrum Disorder.
  • If you want to hear more, please buy the book! I think this is a very valuable book and it is a very interesting read, and that’s why I am using the author’s framework for sharing my own knowledge and experiences.

#2: My Sensory Perceptions are Disordered
If you have heard anything about Sensory Integration, you know that this is a HUGE thing to tackle in one blog post.  I’m simply trying to scratch the surface of sensory integration with this post, so please know that there is SO much more than what I’m writing here.
A child with Autism usually has some kind of “sensory issues”.  Some children will be more impaired in this area than others. 
I love how Ellen Notbohm (the author of the book) described the sensory world to a child with Autism in a grocery store.  We could view this as a “simple trip” to the grocery store, but to a child with Autism, this could be one of the worst environments for them.  Instead of trying to re-create it, please read her words from an article in “Future Horizons” and imagine living life in this state:
My hearing may be hyper-acute. Dozens of people are talking at once. The loud speaker booms today’s special. Music whines from the sound system. Cash registers beep and cough, a coffee grinder is chugging. The meat cutter screeches, babies wail, carts creak, the fluorescent lighting hums. My brain can’t filter all the input and I’m in overload!

My sense of smell may be highly sensitive. The fish at the meat counter isn’t quite fresh, the guy standing next to us hasn’t showered today, the deli is handing out sausage samples, the baby in line ahead of us has a poopy diaper, they’re mopping up pickles on aisle 3 with ammonia….I can’t sort it all out; I’m too nauseous.

Because I am visually oriented, this may be my first sense to become overstimulated. The fluorescent light is too bright; it makes the room pulsate and hurts my eyes. Sometimes the pulsating light bounces off everything and distorts what I am seeing — the space seems to be constantly changing. There’s glare from windows, too many items for me to be able to focus (I may compensate with “tunnel vision”), moving fans on the ceiling, so many bodies in constant motion. All this affects my vestibular sense, and now I can’t even tell where my body is in space.

WOW.  And you wonder why these children can have “tantrums”.  I have since learned the difference between a TANTRUM and a MELT-DOWN. 

 Tantrum = I want attention from you.
 Melt-down = I don’t care about the attention, I just can’t hold it together for another minute. 

USUALLY, a child on the Autism spectrum will have true melt-downs, even though they might look the same as a “tantrum” to the naked eye.  They might scream, kick, hit, run away, etc.  But if a child with Autism is on sensory overload, they don’t care about attention at all.  Their body is completely out of whack, and they cannot handle being in that environment for another second longer.

Although the scene above described a child who was “hyper-acute” to sensory stimulation, children can also be “hypo-acute”.  They could under-react to a painful injury, or seem completely unfocused when people around them are talking.  Some kids are hyper-sensitive in some senses, and hypo-sensitive in others.  This is why you need to truly know the child before you can come to any conclusions.

Here’s a very simplistic breakdown of how sensory dysfunction can impair children across the senses:

    • Bright lights
    • Reflective surfaces
    • Cluttered wall space (think: elementary school classrooms)
    • Things moving too fast or an an irregulare pace
  • AUDITORY: Imagine what you’re hearing right now, and amplify it multiple times.  To the point where your head hurts.  That radiator in the back of the room.  The dog next door.  The sibling walking down the stair.  The car’s brakes at a stop sign outside.  The rain.  Imagine if those noises were indistinguishable from the voice of your mother trying to get your attention.  That’s just a small piece of what some of these children have to live with every second of their lives.
    • Temple Grandin said, “Wal*Mart is like being inside the speaker at a rock and roll concert”
    • Too loud
    • Too high-pitched
    • Too sudden
    • Too many noises at once
  • TACTILE (sense of touch)
    • differing temperatures
    • physical pain
    • vibrations
    • textures
      • clothing, tags, backpack straps, shoes
  • OLFACTORYcertain smells could be so offensive to a child with Autism, they might literally need to gag.  Imagine the worst thing you’ve ever smelled – and your reaction to it.  Now, the following smells could either produce great pleasure, or almost physical pain:
    • perfumes
    • paint, glue
    • cleaning products
    • food
    • animals
    • air fresheners
  • GUSTATORY – (sense of taste)  Many children on the spectrum have difficulties with their diet, and many times it’s because of a sensory related issue.  Certain kids will only eat foods that are crunchy – foods that are soft may make them gag.  Other kids can’t stand crunchy foods – it hurts them to eat anything other than soft foods.  There’s so many things we don’t even think about when we’re eating our food, such as:
    • Food textures
    • Food temperatures
    • Food colors
  • VESTIBULAR and PROPRIOCEPTIVEprobably the most difficult for us to understand.
    • Vestibular System regulates the sense of equilibrium (balance and stability)
    • Proprioceptive Sense uses feedback from joints and muscles to tell us where our body is in space.
    • When these systems are disordered, you will see behaviors that people think of as “clumsy” or even “ADD”. 
      • Tripping over their own feet
      • Literally bouncing off of walls
      • Falling out of chairs
      • Walking with an odd, heavy gait
    • This can make students feel really disordered, and they can feel
      • dissy
      • nauseated
      • distorted hearing
      • visual disturbances
      • difficulty with memorization or focus
      • anxiety, depression

Many families with children with Autism should be in constant contact with an Occupational Therapist (which was my original major in college!).  A great occupational therapist can make a “sensory diet” for your child, where they will figure out what your child’s sensory needs are, and then put sensory strategies into place for when your child is feeling hypo-sensitive or hyper-sensitive to sensory stimuli.

Bottom Line: 

We cannot expect these students to make any true progress until we make sure their basic needs are met – and many of this can be met through sensory strategies.  I will be writing another post about the sensory strategies I use in my classroom…because they CAN work to help these amazing kids be able to function in their world with a little bit more ease.
Weekend Bloggy Reading
2 Responses to “>Autism Series #2:”
  1. Megan says:

    >Christina,This is amazing- thank you for writing this post. Our school is becoming an autism center school this year and I will have a few autistic K kids in my room- I had one last year and loved him to death. This is a great insight into the mystery of autism. If I have questions or need ideas next year, I know who to go to!Thanks again,Megan

  2. Jennifer says:

    >I would LOVE for you to read my daughter's story about helping her conquer her severe SPD. I would love to know what you think about the way we progressed and can't wait to hear more about your sensory strategies… Here is a link to her story.http://babyminding.com/2010/10/25/the-special-needs-child-jacquelyns-story/

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