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What Are Sensory Issues?

Sensory processing difficulties are common in children with autism and can present themselves in a variety of ways. For some, certain sounds may be painfully loud; for others, certain textures may feel unbearable. Some children have difficulty regulating their own level of activity and may seem “hyper” or “hypo” – meaning they are either over- or under-responsive to sensory input.

Autism Speaks outlines the different senses that can be affected in both hyper-sensitive and hypo-sensitive individuals: sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch, balance, and body awareness.

Symptoms of Hypersensitivity

An autistic child with hypersensitivity is overly responsive to sensory input. They may:

  • Cover their ears when exposed to loud noises
  • Have a strong aversion to certain textures, smells, or tastes
  • Be uncomfortable with bright lights or patterns
  • Seem “jumpy” or easily startled
  • Avoid physical contact altogether, or be overly sensitive to touch
  • Have difficulty regulating their own activity level

Fortunately, there are a few strategies parents can put in place to help ease their child’s hypersensitivity (alongside consulting with an occupational therapist). For instance, toys designed for sensory processing can help autistic children become more comfortable with different stimuli and learn to regulate their own level of activity.

Symptoms of Hyposensitivity

Where hypersensitive children are overly responsive to sensory input, hyposensitive children are under-responsive. They may:

  • Seem oblivious to pain
  • Be unbothered by extreme temperatures
  • Not react when called by name or touched
  • Have a high threshold for touch and pressure
  • Constantly seek out movement and activity
  • Be drawn to bright lights and patterns

Hyposensitive children may benefit from activities and toys that provide more sensory input – like weighted blankets, strong tastes, and skills-focused physical activities – as this can help them become more aware of their surroundings and senses.

How do sensory toys help autism?

Although toys are unable to “cure” sensory processing difficulties, they can help ease the symptoms in both hypersensitive and hyposensitive children. For instance, a fidget toy can help a child who is overly sensitive to touch become more comfortable with being touched, while a ball pit can provide the movement and physical activity a hyposensitive child craves.

Sensory toys are helpful for a multitude of reasons. They can:

  • Help kids focus by narrowing their attention to one specific stimuli
  • Serve as a form of self-regulation for kids who have difficulty modulating their own activity level or reactions to sensory input
  • Provide a way for kids to explore different senses in a safe and controlled environment
  • Help kids learn about cause and effect (e.g. if I push this button, the toy will make a noise)
  • Offer a way for kids to release excess energy in a positive way
  • Be used as a form of visual or auditory stimulation for kids who are hyposensitive

Like other toys shared between children, sensory toys also provide a way for kids with autism to socialize and bond with others; they'll learn to take turns, share, and cooperate while playing.

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