Meeting Sensory Needs First in Autism Treatment
An understanding of sensory processes is crucial in Autism treatment. One must meet sensory needs first–learn why and how!
I admit I am a bit of a nerd when it comes to sensory integration. Last summer when my friends were reading books like the Hunger Games and other fun novels I was digging in and loving “Sensory Integration and the Child” by Jean Ayers (SO highly recommended, by the way!). There is just something so fascinating to me about the way our bodies work, and I love taking that information a step further in order to better understand how someone’s body may not work as expected.
The sensory system is one such example of something we often take for granted, then wonder what may be going “wrong” with someone who struggles with sensory processing. I talked about the importance of sensory integration in a previous post, “Sensory Integration Made Simple”, and also explained the proprioceptive and vestibular systems in “What Every Parent and Therapist Should Know About Sensory Processing”. I feel like this information is so important yet so often overlooked and not fully understood. And for those who are raising or working with children (or adults!) with Autism or Sensory Processing Disorder, this information can make a world of difference in Autism treatment.
My focus for this post is to emphasize the importance of meeting a child’s sensory needs before any other need. The basis of this comes from basic neurology. Dorita Berger explains this all very well in her book “Music Therapy, Sensory Integration, and the Autistic Child” (another one of my very favorites!). It’s all explained quite simply by looking at the role of the lower brain and the upper brain.
A Typical System
The lower brain is the very first to receive sensory input from the rest of the body, and it processes this input without our conscious awareness. This happens constantly throughout the day as we experience touch, sight, sound, movement, and basically any sensory experience. In a properly functioning system, the vast majority of this information will not even reach conscious awareness unless particular attention is paid to the stimulus. Most input is deemed as safe and nonthreatening, and the individual can calmly carry out various tasks and activities throughout the day.
An Atypical System
In contrast, an individual who does not process sensory information correctly may take in some of this sensory information as threatening. This is due to that age-old fight-flight-freeze system (“freeze” was recently added to the mix, cool huh!). As you may recall, the fight or flight system is a reaction to a stimulus that happens before conscious awareness. This sheds a whole new light on the behaviors we see in those kids with sensory difficulties such as those with Autism. A behavior such as head banging, hitting, pulling away, pushing, biting, covering ears, yelling, etc. may be an unconscious reaction to what the body is processing as dangerous and threatening. It’s so much easier to feel empathy for these kids once the system is explained, right? Autism treatment must include this understanding and empathy.
What to do?
So with this information one can take steps toward minimizing the negative processing taking place in the lower brain. Once information passes through the lower brain it is free to move into the upper brain where cognition takes place (learning, attention, memory, etc.). If information is constantly stuck in the lower brain it will be very difficult for the child to focus, learn, and progress. So the first thing that needs to happen in Autism treatment is to meet their sensory needs first!
This is most effectively accomplished when working in tandem with someone who has a strong understanding of the sensory system (such as an Occupational Therapist who specializes in sensory processing). I’ve had the privilege of working with some wonderful OT’s over the past few years and have learned a great deal from them, as well as from other colleagues such as teachers and special educators. I’ve learned that the first step in Autism treatment is of course to identify what sensory needs the child presents. Are they hyper- or hypo-sensitive, and which systems are effected? Once this is determined you can start to look for interventions to meet the sensory needs in the most natural way possible.
Examples of Success
I work with a child with Autism who is constantly moving and running around the room, with very little reaction to others or interaction at all. This constant movement was an indication that he was seeking vestibular and/or proprioceptive input, so I decided to bring in a trampoline to our session. The first time I did this he went immediately to the trampoline, jumped for the first 5-10 minutes or so while we sang hello and brought out some instruments for his peers. After that initial 5-10 minutes this boy voluntarily left the trampoline, walked to a chair, sat down for 5 minutes, and interacted with his peer playing instruments. This had never happened in previous sessions. Throughout the session he returned to the trampoline, jumped his heart out, then returned to the group. It was amazing to see the way he was able to learn, engage, interact, and even show increased verbal communication once his sensory needs were met.
Another example is a boy who is hypersensitive to auditory input. He had extreme anxiety coming into the group setting because he said it was too loud, and this kept him from coming into the room for 3 sessions unless everyone talked in a whisper (which of course doesn’t work well for the rest of the group). So I purchased a pair of noise reduction headphones. At our next session I told him I had some special headphones that would make the room quiet for him. This time he came in, interacted with his peers, and even took the headphones off after 20 minutes or so and enjoyed the remainder of the group!
I had another 4 year old client who had a hard time staying in his chair during our groups. He was out of his seat at least 80% of the time, and often did best when sitting in his mother’s lap. With a guess that this behavior may be due to an overactive vestibular system I decided to bring in an exercise ball for him to sit on as opposed to the stationary chair. The idea there would be that he was still getting the vestibular input he needed while still sitting with the group instead of wandering the room. We used the ball for several weeks during his Autism treatment and he seemed to enjoy bouncing on it, and he is now able to sit through our entire group and no longer needs the sensory ball!
Those are just a few examples of how meeting an individual’s sensory needs first allowed them to then engage and make great strides in their learning and development in other areas. It is so important for parents and practitioners to learn to recognize the sensory needs of their clients and to take steps to help the child more effectively process their surroundings during their Autism treatment. Best of luck to you!