There are many misunderstood aspects of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), but one of the most frequent but incorrect assumptions is that all people with ASD are sensory avoiders. While it is true that many people with ASD are over-sensitive to sensations, this is not true of all people with ASD. Once you understand this, you’ll have a better understanding of people with ASD.
When discussing sensations about ASD, the sensations are typically grouped into the categories of movement, touch, sight, sound, and smell. When a person is diagnosed with ASD, he or she should also be assessed to determine his or her sensitivity to sensations in each of these categories. A person with ASD may be over-sensitive or under-sensitive to all categories of sensations, but it is much more common to find a person is over-sensitive to some categories of sensations and under-sensitive to others.
Autism: ASD sensory avoiders
When a person with ASD is over-sensitive to a sensation, they’re known as a sensory avoider. This means it takes only a small amount of a sensation to make them feel overwhelmed. For example, a person who is oversensitive to sound may cover his or her ears and cry during a thunderstorm, or perhaps hide in a closet to escape a vacuum cleaner. A person who is over-sensitive to movement may be afraid of escalators and dislike riding in cars. Being over-sensitive to taste can mean a person with ASD will eat only a small number of foods, which makes it very difficult to ensure adequate nutrition.
Autism: ASD Sensory Seekers
A person with ASD who is a sensory seeker, or under-sensitive to a particular sensation, requires a lot of that sensation to be stimulated. A person without ASD may find the same intensity of the same sensation to be overwhelming, but the under-sensitive person with ASD may seek even more of the same sensation. If he or she is under-sensitive to touch, he or she may not respond to pain in a typical fashion. For example, they might sprain an ankle, but not notice that their ankle is swelling and requires medical attention. This can cause serious problems with very young children or nonverbal individuals who have difficulty telling their caregivers that they are sick or have been injured. Another classic example of under-sensitivity to movement is the child who frequently spins until they’re so dizzy they fall down, only to get up and do it all over again.
No matter whether the person with ASD is over or under-sensitive to sensations, they’re likely to have stimming behaviours. These are behaviours such as hand-flapping, rocking back and forth, or making repetitive noises that help the person with ASD feel calmer and better able to focus in challenging situations. Most stimming behaviours are harmless, but sometimes a stimming behaviour may injure the person (e.g., banging his or her head against the wall) or invade another person’s personal space (e.g., sniffing a stranger’s hair). The stimming behaviours may be obvious to everyone around them, or they may be so subtle that other people don’t even notice.
Do not generalize people with Autism Spectrum Disorder.
It is important to understand that when you know one person with ASD, you cannot generalize that knowledge to form a picture of all people with ASD. Each person has their own unique profile of reactions to sensations. These sensitivities help produce each person’s strengths and challenges and should be considered when encountering that person in day-to-day life. Don’t be afraid to ask how you can help the person with ASD. Something as simple as a respectfully phrased inquiry directed to the person with ASD or their caretaker to ask what you can do to make that person more comfortable will go a long way in ensuring the success of your relationship with him or her. It is also important to be patient and remember that even if a stimming behavior seems odd to you, you should adapt your own behaviors to help the person with ASD be more comfortable and better able to succeed.