This post, the first of a series, is courtesy of Dr. David Jenkins, Sr., a Licensed Specialist in School Psychology and Lead for Psychological Services at Lubbock, TX. Dr. Jenkins has provided psychological services to school districts in Lubbock, Texas and surrounding school districts for over 25 years and has served on the Texas Education Agency statewide networks for autism and behavior.

Sensory Reactions in Children With Autism

 When evaluating the presence of autism you should think of various characteristics on a continuum. Children with Autism tend to either be over-stimulated or under-stimulated, to over-react or under-react, be hyper-aroused or under-aroused to a variety of things.  Putting actions on the continuum is especially helpful when you think of autism and the five senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell. Sensory reactions in autism can vary widely in different children. 

Children with autism may be bothered by certain kinds of lights, or they may like to stare at lights while waving their hands or fingers in front of their eyes.  Some may look at things out of the corner of their eyes rather than directly looking at it. Some may like to watch things spin, any object that can spin, such as wheels on cars (real or toy), plates, a frisbee, a ceiling fan, a top, a coin, etc. Children with autism tend to be better visual than auditory learners.  Temple Grandin, a famous woman with autism, talks about how she thinks in pictures rather than words.  

 It is not unusual for parents to tell me they thought their child was deaf because the child did not always respond when their name was called. A 4th grade student I evaluated asked if I could get the teacher to stop “ticking” (as in “tic-toc”) because it was distracting him. The source of the ticking was the teacher’s pacemaker that he was able to hear! Other children, however, completely ignore sounds. One task often used during an evaluation is to ring a bell while the child is engaged in a task.  Many times, children with autism never turn toward the sound; they appear not even to notice it.   

Children with autism can be particular about the clothes they wear.  They may never wear blue jeans, preferring the softer feel of other materials.  I’ve known children who wear the same shirt every day because it is the only type of “feel” they will tolerate.  One little boy liked the feel of nylon stockings, causing his mother to warn visitors about wearing stockings. 

Sometimes children may like to play with water or sand, letting it run through their fingers. Sometimes they may not like the feel of shaving cream or pudding, which is often used in pre-school settings for finger painting.  Sometimes they like the feel of human hair, smooth surfaces, cool feeling objects, carpet, etc., and the list goes on. The continuum is wide.

 It is not unusual for children with autism to be picky eaters. They may prefer only soft foods, or only crunchy foods, or no meat of any kind, or no veggies, or only foods of a certain color. A mother told me her child would eat an apple, but only if it was whole and unpeeled.  Another told me her child would eat an apple, but only if it was whole and peeled.  Others have told me the apple had to be peeled and cut, or cut and unpeeled. Children with autism may only eat a limited number of foods and will only eat those every day, never trying anything new. The food-preference continuum can be extremely varied. 

The last of the senses is smell. Teachers and parents have told me about how their child can detect when a new perfume or deodorant is used and at the same time do not react to the smell of a skunk near the house.

When it comes to sensory sensitivity and reactions, one size does not fit all. Children with autism can fall anywhere along a wide continuum of sensitivity.


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