SENSORY INTEGRATION

When information is collected through the sensory channels, it is transmitted to the brain, interpreted and organized, prior to the individual responding appropriately.  This process is called sensory integration.  Touch, taste, smell, sight and sound are most frequently referred to as the senses, however the body also senses movement, force of gravity and body position through the muscles and joints.  This is referred to as proprioception.  Autistic children do not regulate sensory input well, paying little attention to most things or overreacting to others.  When sensory input is not organized or aligned properly, problems in learning, development or behavior may be evident.  Some autistic children have benefitted  from sensory integration therapy.  Consulting occupational and physical therapists may provide additional strategies to meet the needs of specific children.

Visual

Studies indicate that autistic children use only a portion of their vision field rather than the entire eye as they observed the world around them. When engaging in activities such as throwing balls or walking down stairs they appear to not be looking in the appropriate direction.  Some may attempt to view the world from a different perspective as they  bend over to look through their legs, or pull their eyelids to form tears.

Many autistic children become stressed with bright light sources or the flicker
or florescent lighting.  Arranging work spaces near windows or providing alternate light sources such as a lamp may having calming effects.  They seldom attend to fine detail and are fascinated by movement and outline.  One exception to this is their fixations on particular objects such as shiny metal or paper. Items such as kaleidoscopes, pinwheels, bubbles, ballerina style music boxes, beads, koosh balls, hacky sacks and slinkies all help to visually stimulate the autistic child.  Although they spend very little time looking at people, they seem to focus in on their faces.  Many are fascinated with the movement of alternating colored and white stripes as they move past their eyes.  When presenting printed images or words, contrast may be reduced by using bold black print on  colors such as light tan, light blue, gray, or light green rather than white paper.

Tactile

Some autistic children are hypersensitive to touch.  They enjoy playing with water, sand or mud for hours and like to feel smooth wood, plastic and soft fur. They may touch faces in similiar ways as blind persons do.  For many, the feel of new clothes seems simply intolerable and even small itches and scratches become distressing.

It may be possible to desensitize the child's nervous system to touch by gently stroking them with different textures of cloth or rubbing their skin .  Light pressure should be avoided as it increases arousal and excitement  to the nervous system. Pressure must be firm enough to stimulate the deep pressure receptors.  Children who have been gently held and encouraged to tolerate increased contact have responded with affection and improved eye contact.  They appear to have a high pain tolerance and are sensitive to cold.  Items such as vibrators used on legs and arms, headbands, wristbands, or weighted vests have helped some autistic children.  When using the weighted vest it should be worn for 20 minutes, then removed for a few minutes.  When heavier clothing (such as sweaters) is needed for colder weather, it may be helpful to wrap the item loosely around the child's shoulders just prior to putting it on.  They may also prefer to sleep with heavier blankets on their bed.  Plastic letter with raised edges or sandpaper letters/shapes are also appropriate for tactile stimulation.  Sensory boards may be constructed using a variety of textured materials.

Auditory

Autistic children can often be observed tapping their ears, snapping their fingers, making vocal sounds or hiding their head.  They love music and rhythmic sounds.  When these children cover their ears, they are usually trying to block out sounds which hurt their ears. They may be able to refocus, if given the opportunity to go to a quiet corner of the room for a time of listening to soft music or stories.

Taste

Some children crave oral stimulation by chewing on their clothes, licking objects or placing body parts or objects in their mouths.  Providing opportunities for water play, offering small sips of water and having them chew on IV tubing are suggested intervention strategies.

Smell

Autistic children may have tendencies to smell objects within their environment
or sniff people's hair or hands.  These behaviors appear to calm the individual and bring a sense or familiarity to situations.

Proprioception

When individuals engage in rigorous activity, it helps them define their body in
space and provides feedback through their muscles and joints.  The very way
in which autistic children stand (elbows bent, hands nearly together in front, drooping at wrists, fingers slightly curled) is indicative of their efforts to sense
their body through movements of their muscles and joints.  Autistic children
often enjoy rough games or crawling under couch cushions to calm themself through deep pressure.

One strategy that has been used to develop the proprioceptors and to calm the child, is to roll a child up in a mat and apply slow steady pressure.  Many children enjoy spinning in chairs to help reduce hyperactivity.  Firmly messaging the arms and legs helps wake up their senses, whereas gentle pressure to the shoulders and head help to calm them.  It is often helpful to message the child's hands just prior to attempting fine motor tasks.  The assistant can apply continual gentle pressure on the child's hands  with their hands as they are rolling out playdough or washing their hands.  Having the children wear a weighted backpack or carry their workbaskets enables them to feel the weight on their muscles and joints.  Wristbands, headbands or baseball caps worn by the autistic child have calming effects.  Other objects which may be incorporated into daily activities are a turkey baister, staplers and hole punches.

Vestibular

When autistic children run, they often have their arms awkwardly held close to their sides, flap their hands, or jump up and down. Some walk on their tiptoes, while bending and swooping forward on stiff legs, while others stomp their feet loudly.  Most prefer to rock back and forth or side to side in attempts to calm themself. Some spin round and round, while twisting and turning their fingers in front of their eyes.  When attempting to copy the movement of others, they will often make left to right reversals.

Some autistic children have shown an increase in eye contact immediately
following swinging.  Merry Go Rounds, mini-trampolines and stationary bicycles also provide stimulation to the vestibular receptors.

Links

Background Information /  Programming /  Behaviors /  Play /  Daily Living Skills /
Communication /   Home Page