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Asperger's Syndrome Children And Sensory Sensitivity

Nov 12, 2007
Children with Asperger's Syndrome suffer from sensory sensitivity or are "sensory defensive". This sensitivity can encompass any or all of the senses: sound, touch, taste, sight, and smell. These sensitivities are real, and cause the sufferer much discomfort, some describing it as 'painful'. Sensory overload can trigger a meltdown, often being the 'straw that broke the camel's back'. Some sensitivity's will diminish with exposure and the passage of time. Others will remain as severe for life.

Does your child insist on wearing the same clothes, hat or shoes all the time? Does your child ask for the same foods for every meal? Does he/she shy away from outdoor activities or not like the flashing lights at a school disco? Do they become distracted by strong smells, or notice smells before anyone else? Do they get intensely frightened by balloons popping, fireworks or crowds applauding? Then they may have sensory issues.

Some stimuli your child may be sensitive to:-
Auditory -mower; vacuum; fire alarm; clock ticking
Visual -sunshine; fluorescent lights; fans; 'trigger' colors
Olfactory (smell) -perfume; deodorant; scented washing powder; toothpaste; insecticides
Tactile -Shirt; shorts; shoes; socks; static in clothes; feel of wind on skin

A lot can be done in managing these sensitivities, such as Sensory Integration, Auditory Integration Training and Occupational Therapy. For light sensitivity there's Irlen Lenses.

At home you may consider a "sensory diet" of activities including:

Whole body actions e.g. swimming; hanging by the arms; push-ups
Proprioceptive activities e.g. pushing hands together in prayer position; pushing against a wall with legs
Vestibular-proprioceptive activities e.g. swinging; trampoline; bike riding; dance
Tactile activities e.g. body brushing; rolling on an exercise ball

For sound sensitivities consider using ear plugs, headphones or even blue-tac in the ears to muffle the sounds. Having your child listen to music they enjoy (of a soothing nature rather than heavy metal) can benefit, and monitor the lighting in your home - natural is best.

There are many other factors that can contribute to sensory overload.

Many Asperger children are extremely sensitive to the moods of other people, especially when they are in close proximity. The effects of other people's moods seem to wash over ASD children, and it evokes a differing response in each child. This is called referred mood. E.g. For the referred emotion of ANGER, the Asperger child may become angry themselves, or they may withdraw within themselves, and internalise the anger, or feel the anger is directed at them - and think it must be their fault.

Whichever way they experience referred moods, it's a totalling confusing and exhausting experience for an Asperger child. Referred moods happen with most emotions such as agitation, anxiety, excitement.

Asperger children are also overloaded from too many people (crowds), and some scenarios are shopping centres, school assembly/parade, public libraries, movie theatres, concerts, fairs, playgrounds in the park etc. They seem to soak in all the energy around them. Too much to smell, to much to listen to, too much to see, too much movement!

Another source of overload for the Asperger child is voice, particularly tone of voice. Long before the words or message is decoded, the tone is instantly analysed by the ASD child. Any hint of criticism or sarcasm is detected and taken personally. A critical tone is destructive, particularly when the Asperger child is not aware of the 'why'. The 'loop' effect can result in the Asperger child going over the statement long after the event took place. They try to analyse the scenario, and this causes an increase in anxiety, agitation and fear.

Most Asperger children find it traumatic to be looked at or stared at. Asperger children feel vulnerable; unable to protect themselves from prying eyes. Staring intrudes on their own private world, and these children feel powerless to deal with it. When Asperger children become over sensitised from staring they often think they are being stared at when they're not. Their obsessiveness takes over and "being stared at" can become a major source of bother.

These are all common areas of upset for an Asperger child. They can all contribute to the cumulative overload effect of Sensory Stimuli. And yes, they can often lead to meltdown! Your child's Psychologist/Therapist should be working on strategies to effectively help your child in these areas, but being aware of these sources of distress means you will be able to better understand your Asperger child's behaviour, and perhaps take preventative action when appropriate.
About the Author
Nelle Frances is the mother of a 15 year old with Asperger's Syndrome, a Special Needs Educator and Author of the Ben and His Helmet series of books for Asperger children. She is also an active member of 5 Asperger's Syndrome Support and Advocacy Groups. For more information and Support Strategies visit http://www.nellefrances.com
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