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How Do You Manage Sensory Sensitivities That Come Along with Autism?

By February 15, 2008

When our son, Tom, was small, we avoided a lot of situations because the sights, sounds, smells and sensations were likely to set off anxiety and bad behaviors. Family gatherings were especially tough, because each time he'd pop his head out of his "safe" bedroom, well-meaning relatives would flock around and overwhelm him. Grocery stores were too much for him, and the close proximity of people would provoke angry tears and even hitting.

Those sensitivities were nothing, though, compared to this description from a listserve:

I ... [have] an adult daughter with extreme sensitivities to more external stimuli than anyone I know. It has changed our lives dramatically (e.g., I cook outdoors, even in the dead of winter), and most people do not begin to understand why she is so "sensitive" - as if these sensitivities were a choice.
It's hard for me to imagine changing my life to the degree that I'd cook outside in the dead of winter. But then again, Tom's sensitivities have mellowed over time. Today, while certain smells and sounds may upset him, he can handle most sensory input without getting overwhelmed.

How have sensory issues related to autism affected your lives? Have you come up with strategies to manage sensitivities fairly easily? Or, like the writer above, are you finding it necessary to change your life completely?

February 15, 2008 at 6:34 pm
(1) Cathy Knoll says:

Sensory issues can effect nearly every aspect of life for some individuals with autism, even their feet! Some people with autism cannot tolerate shoes while others cannot tolerate bare feet. One of my young friends with autism always took off his shoes, so we assumed he did not like the confinement of his shoes.He was sensitive to touch and he preferred loosely-fitted clothing, so we assumed he preferred bare feet to shoes. After five or six years, it finally became apparent that he was actually taking off his shoes in an attempt to communicate he wanted deep pressure on his feet. He was very happy young man when his parents bought him snug hiking boots fitted with highly textured liners.

Some of my friends with autism like the security of snug socks and shoes. Some even want to wear their shoes to bed. Now, we may think that it is rather strange to wear shoes to bed, but most families have found it counter productive to try to talk them into going to bed barefooted. One strategy that has worked for some folks is to slip on a clean pair of thick, snug socks after their bath to wear to bed. If they must have shoes on their feet in addition to the thick socks, they can wear some slippers or soft clogs reserved for “bed shoes.” It is certainly easier to make some concessions in this area than to deal with conflict at bedtime every night.

Check our daily FAQautism.com podcasts for short discussions about other sensory issues – food textures, noises, music, hand lotions, scents, people, lights, and even underwear!

February 15, 2008 at 11:55 pm
(2) Sandy says:

We grill all year round, dead of winter too and we found out 18 below zero, the grill will light :) Actually when my son was much younger, the grill was safer than our oven. I stopped using the oven at age 3 and didn’t use it again for many years later. Better safer than sorry. The first meat my son ever ate was over grilled/ black chicken. He loved it. So the joke was “hey hubby, can you burn one chop?”

There are some cooking items my son cant still handle. When the new doughnut shop came, you could watch them making them and I thought it was so neat, so we went to take a look. My son about didn’t make it out the door, he can not stand the smell of hot oil and who knew?? We bought doughnuts and any time you opened that box, he could smell the oil and throw up.

I think the harder things we deal with is textures of foods to avoid, and some people not paying attention to the result if he tried to eat it. My son never threw fits else where, if he was told he followed and still does. We are a split family, and my son goes to his dad’s. Every year for his birthday that grandma bakes a cake with real fruit, every year the poor kid never speaks up and throws up as soon as that cooked fruit hits his mouth.

My family and my husbands, we’ve always gone with the flow. Holidays my son would be under the table while we ate whimpering, when everyone was all done and left the table he’d eat. Family members never say goodbye directly to him, I’m not sure yet why he doesn’t like goodbyes but you just learn not to do it.

Some of these things just become a natural part of like. It’s like remembering always to dress and undress starting on the left side and not like that confused look in your child when you forget.

February 17, 2008 at 9:44 am
(3) julie says:

we dont go as far as cooking outside barbie style unless the elctric gets cut..we dont like gas..we dread decorating unless our son is away..perfumes and are a no no and he really only likes deodrant on him self.

he used to think all smells were gas and we learnt to tell him what a smell waas so he wasnt frightened of it.
Body odour was frowned upon..i used to wash underarms 3 or 4 times a day but he didnt notice his own he always thought it the other persons..i dont think the smell felt that close to him it just over powered the room.
he stopped asking for fish or scampi unless it was a delivered take away..casserole dinners were cooked while he was out at school to cut down smells and an air purifier was on 24/7.

regards julie.

February 19, 2008 at 5:16 pm
(4) Debi says:

Because my senses are very “high strung” I can understand. I’ve learned to tune things out over time. It seems my son is able to do this over time too. It is a difficult call for any parent to know when to push or not to push. Sometimes it is too cruel to push and others times it seems there is no choice BUT to push. Anyone who thinks about parenting enough knows in the end, all we can do is the best we can do WITH LOVE. And that’s it. :-)

February 20, 2008 at 1:41 pm
(5) Andy Lewis says:

My son Collin has responded well to Geodon insofar as his hypersensitivity is concerned.


February 27, 2008 at 8:03 pm
(6) Kim says:

My daughter cannot be around anyone who is eating or chewing gum! It has made our lives miserable. Candy & popcorn @ the movies, birthday cake, snack at girl scouts, every meal, anyone, anywhere chewing gum….. Our lives have been a living hell because of this! She tries so hard to contain herself at school during recess and lunch but she always ends up in a fight. I wish we could help her, she now sees food & thinks she hears chewing. I feel so bad for her, her pain is real & no one outside our family (and some inside) understands.

May 11, 2010 at 11:30 am
(7) Debra says:

My 4 yr. old son hates to have his ears and underarms washed. It is so frustrated trying to get him to realize he won’t be hurt. He screams like we’re killing him. I have been able to make a squeaky noise, for example, “Look, your ears are/we’ve got to get your ears squeaky clean” and make the noise, which helps with the ears, but no luck with the underarms. He’s also a picky eater, which makes it hard to feed him. He has a limited diet and rarely deviates from it. Any suggestions/ideas would be greatly appreciated.

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