Sensory Processing

Sensory processing is the term used to describe how we receive and respond to sensory stimulation, both from the environment and from our own bodies e.g. noises, smells, movement, touch, visual input and taste.

Research evidence indicates that up to 90% of individuals with autism experience sensory processing differences (Marco et al 2011).  DSM 5 (APA, 2013) lists atypical responses to sensory input as one of the diagnostic features of autism:

‘Hyper-or hypo-reactivity to sensory input or unusual interest in sensory aspects of environment; (such as apparent indifference to pain/heat/cold, adverse response to specific sounds or textures, excessive smelling or touching of objects, fascination with lights or spinning objects).’

Examples of sensory processing differences may include:

  • Sensory sensitivities: heightened awareness of sounds, touch, smell etc. This can then lead to a dislike and avoidance of specific stimuli e.g. the noise of a hand dryer, the smell of perfume, the feel of some textures.
  • Sensory overload: heightened sensitivities can lead to overload in which the individual becomes extremely anxious and may try to escape from the situation or block out stimuli.
  • Sensory avoidance: the individual avoids certain environments and activities due to a fear of the sensory input.
  • Sensory seeking: Some individuals crave certain types of sensory input as the stimuli is comforting or assists them in maintaining a level of alertness and concentration.
  • Low registration: Some children and young people with autism require increased amounts of sensory input to achieve a level of alertness and attention required to participate in daily life activities.

The varying responses to sensory input can have a significant impact on participation in daily life activities and in acquiring new life skills.  Some examples of the impact of sensory processing differences on life skill development are given in the table below:

Sensory processing difference Impact on life skill development
Dislike/avoidance of tactile input

Anxiety in self-care tasks e.g. washing hair, showering, shaving.

Difficulty standing in a queue due to the close proximity of others.

Avoids physical contact with others e.g. team sports, crowded places.

Dislike/avoidance of specific sounds

Anxiety in response to certain noises which can lead to avoidance of public places e.g. hand dryer in public toilets, traffic noise on roads, baby crying in shops
Dislike of some smells

Avoidance of some shops, cafes etc.

Refusal to use soap, shampoo, shaving foam etc.

Unable to participate in meal preparation.

Unable to tolerate smell of household cleaning products.

Easily distracted by visual stimuli

Distractible in busy classroom or workplace so cannot focus on assigned task.

Loses attention in busy environments e.g. supermarket, crossing a busy road.

Experiences sensory overload

Avoidance of sensory busy environments and so skills are not learnt in these settings e.g. supermarket, public transport, busy road.

Impulsively leaves busy environments without explanation e.g. workplace, restaurant, cinema.

Cannot concentrate on learning new skills due to distractibility and anxiety caused by sensory overload.

Fear of going to new places due to unknown sensory input in unfamiliar environments/activities.

Many teenagers and adults miss out on social opportunities as interactions and leisure activities frequently take place in sensory busy environments e.g. concerts, sports matches, bars/nightclubs, youth clubs.

Cannot learn tasks which involve multiple sensory stimuli e.g. cooking, showering, using community facilities such as cafes and cinemas.

Sensory seeking behaviours

An individual who is pacing, rocking, fidgeting etc can be a distraction to others in the classroom or workplace.

In these instances, alternative sensory seeking behaviours need to be taught.

For example, the child/young person who craves increased sensory input will find it more difficult to participate in quiet, passive activities e.g. sitting in chair at hairdresser or dentist, engaging in an office-based work placement, sitting for a meal in a restaurant, standing in a queue.

Sensory breaks will need to be provided to maintain level of alertness and concentration e.g. movement breaks in the classroom or workplace, physical activity at break and lunch times in the workplace.

Low registration

The individual with low registration will find it difficult to learn skills in more passive tasks.

Motivation and participation is likely to be greater in more sensory rich and active tasks.

Tasks will need to be taught in a way which provides increased sensory input.

The individual will need regular sensory input in school, workplace etc. to maintain levels of alertness and concentration.