There is a huge amount of research into the area of the difficulties of people/children with sensory input; however, the area of sensory integration is being developed. Jean Miller, famed for her work in “Sensational kids” is currently working in this area. Temple Grandin is another name you may have heard of, she is known as “the cattle lady”, Temple, herself had ASD. She developed a theory of deep pressure, similar to a “cattle machine” that she had seen cows walk through and get sensory stimulation from. It calmed the cattle and she applied this knowledge to begin research into the area of sensory integration successfully.
Most of the research in this area is carried out by Dr. Winnie Dunn and in The American journal of Occupational Therapy. Other research points to the feeding issues that children with ASDs may have, the tactile input can be overwhelming when they chew or taste. Other studies by Greenspan and Wieder found that 100% of children with ASDs have some auditory processing difficulties, such as hyper sensitivity to noise, a slower response to language or events and the way in which they might respond to language. More research in this area point to the lack of neurological development in the area of the cerebellum and the limbic system. This can cause under connection between areas of the brain so sensory information is not being transferred efficiently.
Research into the overconnectivity of the brain that can occur has been carried out by Courchesne, this can lead to overactivity in the brain, causing overwhelming. When we learn how to drive a car, it becomes a natural thing eventually and the neurones in the brain drop away. In some children with ASDs, these neurones do not break away and continue to build up and overload information in the brain.
The sensory processing difficulties associated with ASD tend to be sensory modulation difficulties. Research by Dunn and Wilbarger in the 1990’s has highlighted the importance of this. A balance of facilitation and inhibition is vitally important. Children with ASDs often have difficulties with facilitation and inhibition. Put simply, facilitation is the in/ability to attend to the important input in the environment. Inhibition is the in/ability to ignore the irrelevant input in the environment. Look around the room you are in, think about the visual, auditory and tactile input. The sounds outsider, the hum of a projector, the visual of a screen and the surface of the table in front of you. I am able to switch off and ignore the input. Think about a noisy nightclub with people banging into and lights flashing, you would feel overwhelmed. Children with ASD may be unable to regulate or modulate their sensory input. You can see why the classroom environment and the way we, as teachers or adults speak to the child or present information.
Many children with ASDs have hyper sensitivity to input around them. The world must seem stressful to them, the swimming pool, the park, the supermarket. They cannot ignore all of this input. We cannot imagine how stressful this must be for them.
Threshold can vary within children with ASDs, low, high or sensory seeking responses can be observed within children with ASDs.
Low threshold can occur, indicators of this can be defensiveness, avoidance strategies, anxiety, shutting down, aggressive or emotional outbursts and distractibility.
High threshold response have 2 types of behaviour related to it. These are sensory- sekar and under-responsive. The sensory seeker appear to be hyperactive or “on the go”, distractible, fidgeting or disruptive. Under-responsive indicators could be ignoring of sensory input, being unresponsive and lethargy.
Some children with ASDs can exhibit a combination of both. Or they can often sit right in the middle. A functional assessment can be carried out to try to asses what is happening on a sensory level. A good starting point is the book Is it sensory or is it behaviour? By Murray Slutsky.
The area of sensory input and processing is one that everyone who works with children with ASDs to be aware of, in the future there will more be more research on approaches to deal with sensory processing. The sensory systems of the visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory(smell) and gustatory(taste) need to be taken into account when thinking about the learning needs of a child in your class. These observations will help us plan in an autism-friendly way and enhance the learning experience and environment for children developmental disorders.
Sensory, motor and relationship perspectives in Autistic Spectrum disorders or ASDs-Part 2