Sensory Considerations for Individuals with Autism in Physical Activity and Recreation Programs
Individuals with autism may have hypoactive (under-responsive) or hyperactive (over-reactive) responses to any of the senses, including sounds, touch, taste, and smell. Sensory integration, the process in which the brain organizes and interprets sensory information, is often impaired in individuals with autism. Being aware of sensory processing difficulties that an individual may have and incorporating individualized sensory activities into his or her daily activities can benefit the individual with autism.
Beyond the basic five senses -- vision, hearing, touch, taste, and smell -- there are two other sensory processing systems, the proprioceptive and vestibular systems, that may be affected. The proprioceptive system helps the brain know where the body is in space. It is the deep pressure felt when we carry heavy bags, push big pieces of furniture, or go swimming. Proprioceptive stimulation can be the most calming and sought-after stimulation. Individuals whose proprioceptive system is affected may complain of being tired, move slowly and have difficulty participating in sports. The vestibular system helps us keep our balance, coordinate movements of the eyes, head, body movement and gravity and affects visual perception, auditory language perception, balance, muscle tone, and motor planning. Individuals whose vestibular system is affected may have a difficult time filtering out non-important information, maintaining eye contact, and variable issues.
Types of Sensory Responses Common in Individuals with Autism:
- No reaction to loud or sudden noise
- Lack of attention to people, environment or things
- Does not become dizzy with excessive spinning
- Unaware of painful stimuli resulting in bruises and bumps
- Excessive behavior or movement
- Distress with certain sounds
- Sensitivity to light and textures
- Aversion to certain smells and tastes
- Irrational fear of heights, movements, or environments (i.e., large swimming pool)