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May 2024



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Sensory Room

First Published Monday, 7th April, 2008.

By Anon.



It’s time to take a walk down Sensory Lane and investigate some of the more fascinating aspects of the Sensory World for those on the Spectrum.

For those who simply want to play, look no further than “Sensory World and Sensory Rooms Interactive Website”

But for those, after a little enlightenment and theory, please continue on down that lane with me…

Those on the spectrum may be hyper(over-sensitive) or hypo(under-sensitive) on any or combinations of several of the five sensory channels. Throughout childhood and into adulthood, the realization of just how differently our experiences and perceptions of the world around us was and is, compared to that of your average neurotypical, never occurred. Realistically, how could it have? We did however, manoevre, accept, respect and make allowances for whatever made us ‘feel’ uncomfortable. For some, hypersensitivity diminishes in later childhood, but for many it continues throughout their lives. For some, the effect can be quite debilitating and an Occupational Therapist(OT) may be of help. Certainly, episodes of difficult behaviour can be directly caused by sensory difficulties.

Tactile Sensitivity. Sensitivity in regard intensity of touch and in regard touching certain parts of the body can be intense. While some children on the spectrum like tight squeezy hugs, others may become rigid, flinch and pull away. In my family, hugging is most definitely on our own terms. We all stiffened and pulled away as babies, preferring not to be held. As adults, in control of the stimulus, physical contact can be much more enjoyable. As for touch, light touch is the enemy and my daughter and I have never been able to handle tickling. The forms of touch used in social greetings, affectionate gestures, can be too intense or overwhelming for some. We all complied with what was expected in terms of hugging relatives and friends upon greeting/departure, not wishing to offend, but more often than not, touch was ‘tolerated’, rather than enjoyed. Many on the spectrum do not like being touched spontaneously, without any warning or permission, but if you ask and/or warn us, then we cope better.

It should be noted that avoidance of social contact for some, may well be a physiological reaction to touch, not necessarily an avoidance of being close to or sociable with others.

Clothing-wise, my children and I strongly disliked wearing hats, even though the intense Queensland sunlight made us squint more than most, and our eyes would water profusely. We all were and still are blinded by brightness. The seams of socks and the feel of particular shoes could cause great discomfort. Denim was agony for my eldest son(who even now refuses to wear it). Those painful, scratchy clothes tags on the back of the neck were also often removed.

Some children and adults insist on having a limited wardrobe, preferring for example 100% cotton garments, or non-collared shirts only.

Occupational therapists devise Sensory Integration programmes that help reduce tactile sensitivity, incorporating massage, gentle rubbing, vibration, sometimes deep pressure and vestibular stimulation(spinning and rocking)into the programme. Temple Grandin designed a squeeze machine, lined with foam rubber that encloses almost the entire body. She found that the firm squeezing made for a soothing and relaxing desensitizing experience.

“The Torture of Touch”:

For those who crave deep pressure, weighted blankets:

Sound Sensitivity.

There are three types of noise that are exceptionally intense. The first is sudden, unexpected noise. A smoke detector or fire alarm, a car horn, the phone ringing, someone coughing, a dog barking. Then there’s high-pitched, continuous sound. This includes the noise that originates from small electric motors(kitchen, bathroom and garden equipment). Naturally, it can be very difficult for your average person to empathize with this. The intensity of the experience should never be underestimated. The third type is that of confusing, complex or multiple sounds found in shopping malls or at noisy social events, which many of us find difficult, if not impossible to tolerate.

I am extremely sensitive to the sound of the microwave beeping, the washing machine and clothes dryer’s incredibly painful beeping at cycle’s end and the even louder, piercing beeping emitted by the fridge/freezer if the door’s ajar just that moment too long. I have to attend to it immediately. I startle far more easily than most and my reaction is more intense. Notably, one of the features of acute sound sensitivity is the degree in variation in sensitivity from one day to the next. Some days, I can tolerate and enjoy loud volumes(eg. on ipod), while on other days, I can’t even bear to have soft music playing. Shutting out the world and withdrawing from intolerable noise levels can be very necessary, while others learn to tune out or switch off from certain sounds.

Balloons popping. Noisemakers at parties. The telephone ringing. The doorbell ringing. The radio. Chiming clocks. Dogs barking. School bells and fire alarms. The scraping of chairs over a classroom floor. Fireworks. Those aeroplanes. That thunder. The level of sensitivity can be quite extraordinary for some. My youngest son has long had a problem with the vacuum cleaner and the lawnmower. Headphones can certainly make the difference.

One mother of an autistic child once commented on the fact that despite her son being extremely sound sensitive, he certainly spoke very loudly. Some people on the spectrum do talk very loudly because they have a poor ability to modulate their output. Some simply do not hear their own voices as loud. Many of us like very loud music if we are in control of it, but we can become very upset at even subtle sounds when we cannot control production. In social settings, you may have to tell your family member/friend that they are talking too loudly as often they do not realise.

Being respectful of sensitivities, educating those around us and minimising or avoiding specific sounds known to be unbearably intense, will inevitably reduce anxiety. Especially if greater concentration and socialisation is desired.

Sensitivity to pain and temperature. As for feeling pain and temperature, well that gets even more interesting. When it comes to injuries, reactions to extreme heat/cold, pregnancy/labour/childbirth etc, the pain threshold can make for some interesting experiences, and in some cases, our health and safety can be at grave risk.

There are severely autistic/severely intellectually impaired people who have little or no perception of pain caused by direct impacts caused by falling from heights or out of fast moving vehicles until there is serious tissue damage. Some do not feel high temperatures from boiling water or hot surfaces such as irons or hot plates – again until tissue damage has occurred. Some do not feel terribly bothered by most injuries and just keep right on working with the task at hand. One man, when very anxious, manually extracted four lower front teeth overnight. Some do not seem to need anaesthetics when sutures are used after surgical procedures, yet these same hypo-sensitive people can also be seriously hyper-sensitive to textures of fabrics(usually fine or silky) or subtle noise or even reflected light. Others are easily over-stimulated by light reflecting off shiny surfaces(visual sensitivity). This can provoke a panic response in some due to intense anxiety and distress.

I have an extraordinarily high pain threshold it would seem. Many of us appear very stoic in response to pain that others would consider unbearable. Removing my own splinters as a child was never a bother for me, in fact I quite enjoyed it – must be the nurse in me! I refused all offers of pain relief in labour, opting for mind over matter!

Some can be oblivious to broken bones, dislocations. Ear infections(of which I had many as a child) or appendicitis, may go undetected until reaching dangerous levels. There can be no indication of significant pain and detecting it can be dificult for parents. Sometimes the signs may simply be that the child or adult appears a little unlike their usual self. There are some quite extreme cases reported, such as mentioned earlier.

We may wear summer clothes on a freezing winter’s day, warmer clothing in the summer. For many, our internal thermostats are anything but average!

Parents who are aware that their child shows minimal response to pain tend to become quite vigilant for any signs of discomfort and/or illness. This is certainly the case in my family. Teaching children to report pain wherever possible, is important.

Sensitivity to Smell. For some, specific smells can be overpowering and anxiety-inducing. Sensitivity to particular perfumes/fragrances, and aromas such as household cleaning products can be quite common for those on the spectrum. My own sensitivities have led to the development of a Pavlovian response to a particular perfume. My husband bought me two bottles of Russian perfume(I love perfumes) as a gift when we were travelling. I loved this perfume and can still remember the smell of the fragrance 9 years on. During that same trip, I became very ill and remained terribly ill for 8 months(with extreme hyperemisis), unable to speak, unable to stand without passing out, in and out of hospitals for severe dehydration. Thereafter, whenever I catch the scent of that same perfume, I feel extremely ill. Needless to say, I gave the perfume away to relatives.

In contrast, some of us experience intense euphoria over certain aromas, such as petrol, freshly cut grass, rain, coffee, roasted nuts and so on. Certain smells can certainly transport us back to our childhoods.

Sensitivity to taste and texture of food.

Many children and adults across the spectrum are described as fussy eaters. Taste and texture can have an enormous bearing on food toleration. Many can’t bear to have one type of food touching another type on their plates, and some are extremely limited in what they will eat.

In my family most of us eat a very wide variety of food(both I and my husband greatly enjoy cooking), but when younger there was without question, a definite preference for carbohydrate-rich food for us all. There are no gluten or casein intolerances in the family. Alot of the foods eaten in earlier life, are considered comforting and soothing. It goes without saying that children should not be subjected to force feeding or starvation to encourage a more varied diet. Food should be enjoyed. There are various strategies to assist the introduction and trial of new foods, especially for those concerned with a restrictive diet. Fear and avoidance of food is not uncommon. Encouraging the licking and tasting of food, rather than the chewing and swallowing allows for testing of sensory reaction. Always best to do this when relaxed or distracted. Some people maintain a very restricted diet their lives through, with little if any variation cooking and presentation-wise throughout.

Visual sensitivity. Though it’s said to be rare, some of us have extreme sensitivity to particular levels of illumination and colours. Some have a distortion of visual perception. As mentioned earlier, some of us feel ‘blinded by brightness’ and our sight becomes blurry. Sun visors or sun glasses may be essential, and allowing children and adult passengers, known to be affected, to sit away from the full glare of the sun in transport, is only kind. Some have found that Irlen lenses are beneficial.

Due to an intense perception of colours, some of us go on to make a living from our artwork. Unusual use of colour or intense colouring is a trademark of some.

Perceptual distortion can cause fear and anxiety. People, their faces, bright lights, machines, buildings, the sea, shadows(even their own), unfamiliar places, rooms, and objects may not always make the right impression. Sometimes they appear smaller than what they truly are as well. I experience this myself, and it can certainly induce fear and confusion at times.

Little is known on how to reduce visual sensitivity at this time. Identifying and avoiding what is perceived as too intense is generally the order of the day, aside from the afore-mentioned visors and glasses.

Certainly the intensity of sensitivities for many on the autism spectrum should never be underestimated.  For some, the world is undoubtedly intensely radiant, in it’s colour, sound, texture and sheer beauty.  For others, the world may simply be too loud, too bright and too overwhelming at times, on a scale the likes of which you may never be able to imagine.  For them, your respect, appreciation and accommodation for difficulties can make a world of difference.

rainbow sky

Further Information:

Temple Grandin: “My Experiences with Visual Thinking Sensory Problems and Communication Difficulties”:

Website/Books: http://www.out-of-sync-child.com/

“Asperger Syndrome and Sensory Issues – Practical Solutions for Making Sense of the World”

“The Out of Sync Child Has Fun”

“How Does Your Engine Run?”

“Asperger’s Syndrome – A Guide for Parents and Professionals” Author: Tony Attwood