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Understanding Sensory Seeking and Avoiding Behaviours in Autism

People with Autism can have sensory processing issues. They may display hypersensitivity, hyposensitivity, or both at once. This may manifest as sensory seeking or avoiding behaviours. Read on to learn about the different senses, and strategies to address challenges of those with sensory issues.

sensory processing issues
Sensory challenges can cause children to throw tantrums

Significance of The Eight Senses

If we take a moment to study the world around us, we can notice the different sensory stimuli we are constantly exposed to. These senses dictate how we experience our environment, and help us interpret the space we inhabit. 

Here are the eight senses and the information they provide about our surroundings:  

  1. Visual

The sense of sight helps us identify the shapes, colours, and sizes of things. It helps us distinguish between darkness and brightness.

  1. Auditory

The sense of sound helps us listen to the noises we hear. We try to derive meaning from the sounds, which helps in understanding the words spoken. We also focus on noises that matter to us, while choosing to ignore background noises. 

  1. Tactile

The sense of touch helps us feel pain, pressure, and temperature. It also helps us experience the different textures of an object. Receptors in our skin help us ascertain if something is safe or dangerous (too hot or too cold).

  1. Gustatory

The sense of taste helps us pick foods according to our individual preferences. It also protects us by helping us identify spoiled or contaminated food.

  1. Olfactory

The sense of smell is closely related to that of taste. Both senses work in tandem to help us determine the foods that are good or bad for us. Our brains process smell in relation to emotions. That’s why we tend to associate certain pleasant smells with favourable emotions, and foul smells with negative reactions.

  1. Vestibular System

The vestibular system in our inner ear helps the body maintain balance. It helps us be aware of our orientation in space, and position of our body in relation to gravity. 

  1. Proprioception

This sense of body awareness gives us the ability to know where our body parts are without having to look at them. Unlike the vestibular sense which lets us know where our whole body is in space, proprioception sense comes from the ligaments, muscles and joints of individual body parts. 

  1. Interoception

This is a recently identified sense, which is the awareness of the internal state of your body. You can recognize your physiological needs and functions such as hunger, toileting, and breathing through this sense.

Tactile sensory issuesSensory Seeking Behaviours

Some individuals with autism may have under-sensitivity, and can seek out sensory input constantly. They can appear to be excitable and very active. They may look for intense sensations but can get disorganized due to random sensory inputs. Their quest for sensory stimulation can make them look clumsy and disruptive.

Here are some of the seeking behaviours that can be seen in people with autism:

  • Visual

Seeking shiny objects and sunlight

Staring at spinning objects

  • Auditory

Listening to loud music

Making loud noises in quiet places

  • Tactile

Biting their own skin

Sucking or licking objects frequently

  • Gustatory and Olfactory

Smelling objects to get comfortable with them

Tasting toys and other objects

  • Vestibular

Rocking body

Moving arms more frequently

  • Proprioceptive 

Enjoying rough play more than usual

Rolling and moving frequently

Auditory issuesSensory Avoiding Behaviours

Some individuals with autism may have oversensitivity. They can have exaggerated responses, and can respond too much or too soon. They can be resistant to change and may prefer sticking to familiar places and activities. Their avoidance behaviours are a way to reduce the intensity of stimulation they receive. They can have rituals and fixations that help create a predictable environment for them. Here are some avoidance behaviours that can be seen in people with Autism:

  • Visual

Making no eye contact

Turning away from the person talking to them

  • Auditory

Covering ears when there is loud music

Getting agitated when more than one person is talking

  • Tactile

Getting startled at the lightest touch

Avoiding touching of objects with certain textures such as fabrics with tags or hems.

  • Gustatory and Olfactory

Gagging when asked to eat food they don’t like

Intolerance of certain scents and odours

  • Vestibular

Getting annoyed when position is changed

Rough handling of toys and objects.

  • Proprioceptive 

Avoiding climbing or swinging

Holding on to parents and loved ones

Sensory Issues vs Behavioural Issues

Sensory challenges can cause people with autism to indulge in what can be perceived as problem behaviours. Some children may flee a room when they are overstimulated, while others can throw tantrums. Analyzing the cause of such behaviours and identifying triggers can help caregivers to support the child in coping with their sensory issues. Sensory seeking and avoidance behaviours can also interfere with a child’s regular activities and social interactions. Parents and teachers can give the children a ‘sensory diet’, which is a set of activities designed to provide necessary sensory input. Regular sensory diet routines can not only help the child focus on productive tasks, but also help them become more self-aware and confident.

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