SENSORY PROCESSING

A dark skinned person sat meditating next to a green plant with a green sun above them
If we want to understand autism, we must understand sensory processing. Autistic people have brains and bodies that experience the world differently than non-autistic people. It’s how we process information around us in the environment. So light, sound, movement, smells, temperature. There are several sensory systems:
 
  • sight (vision)
  • hearing (auditory)
  • smell (olfactory
  • taste (gustatory)
  • touch (tactile)
  • vestibular (movement)
  • proprioception (body position)
Two dark-skinned children playing with yellow slime
We can be hypo-sensitive in some systems (so under reactive, needing more input), or hyper-sensitive (so overreactive, escaping that input). For example - some people are hypersensitive to sound whereby they may need to wear ear defenders / ear plugs, cover their ears when alarms go off or dogs bark, or they might struggle filtering background noise when having a conversation. BUT they might be under sensitive to proprioceptive input (body position) and seek deep pressure or tight clothing to stay regulated. 
 
Another autistic person may be under reactive to sound and need more input, so they might turn up the volume on the TV, love loud music, seek big noises. It’s very common to be hypersensitive in 1 system but hyposensitive in another – which is what confuses a lot of people. Everyone has a unique sensory profile. 
Mental health and sensory processing are linked.
 
If you see an autistic child pull their hood up and put their head down in class, it could be that the noise is overwhelming and they’re trying to shut the sound out. Or a child who climbs on the roof of a building and walks along an edge, it may be because it gives them unique proprioceptive input and a sense of control. But what happens frequently is that adults see these children as naughty / rude / challenging. The takeaway message is always think about what’s going on behind the presenting 'behaviour' rather than immediately assigning judgment onto it.
Black and white photograph of a young girl covering her eyes with her hands

SENSORY OVERLOAD 

Also known as an 'autistic meltdown'

What is it?

  • Release of emotions

  • Build-up of anxiety

  • Result of masking

  • Overstimulation 

A meltdown is not a tantrum - A meltdown is outside a person’s control. A meltdown is a response to being completely overwhelmed. It is a loss of control. It can look like: crying, screaming, kicking, punching, biting, shouting. When someone is in a meltdown their ability to process spoken language drastically reduces. They may go mute and not be able to talk.

How to help someone when they're having a meltdown

  • Reduce your amount of language (or stop talking altogether)

  • If you do talk, talk slowly.

  • Don't ask questions unless they're closed questions e.g. "do you want some water? Need to walk?"

  • Offer sensory strategies that are specific to the person e.g. weighted blanket, ear defenders

  • Give them LOTS of physical space. Step back.

  • Don't touch them.

  • Use a gentle, calm tone of voice

  • Use validating statements e.g. "It's OK. I'm here"

  • Don't try to reason with the person or get them to talk to you

A young child crying inside a house looking very distressed
Because sensory overload is linked to mental health it’s frequently misunderstood by mental health professionals. Autistic people can present at A&E, police and ambulances might be called to the person's home, and it can lead to autistic people being detained under the Mental Health Act (so being sectioned) and then being placed on a psychiatric ward. Hundreds of autistic people are sectioned every year. These environments are awful places for autistic people for a number of reasons:
A hospital ward with three beds, representing a psychiatric ward
Bright lights, loud noises, people shouting/screaming, uncomfortable clothes, hot rooms where windows are sealed shut, restraints, seclusion, staff not respecting body autonomy, unfamiliar foods with intolerable textures, unfamiliar people, no structure, people who don't understand autism or neurodiversity, inappropriate medication.
 
The person is left without ANY of their sensory strategies. No predictability. Not being to access special interests. No familiarity. Routine has suddenly changed. Rights are taken away. Nobody explains anything.
 

Stimming

Stimming means 'self-stimulatory behaviours'. Stimming is usually a repetitive movement of some kind. When most people think of stimming, they typically visualise an autistic person hand-flapping. But there are MANY different types of stims which people may not know.
Dark skinned boy bouncing on a trampoline in front of a blue wall, representing self-regulation

Functions of stimming

There are LOTS of reasons why autistic people stim, and can vary depending on the context. A person can have different stims for different emotions, or for different situations.

to self-soothe

to self-regulate

to stimulate

to express emotion

to communicate

to process information

A red fidget spinner held by a light coloured hand
A pink and yellow lava lamp in front of a black background
Light skinned person's hands banging on a drum

TYPES OF STIMS

Humming

Screeching

Singing

Echolalia

Copying accents

Vocal

A boy with musical notes around him singing

Olfactory

Smelling perfume

Incense 

Scented candles

Freshly cut grass

A purple perfume bottle

Visual

 

Watching a lava lamp

Moving hands in front of eyes

Star / space projector

Watching fireworks

Fireworks

Auditory

Listening to the same song

Replaying a scene in a show

Clicking fingers

Listening to white noise

Headphones

Tactile

Biting fingernails

Nose picking

Playing with slime

Doodling​

A hand with stas around it

Physical

A dark sinned woman dancing with her arms in the air

Jumping

Hand-flapping

Spinning in a chair

Bouncing your leg

Rocking