A common characteristic of autism is difficulty processing sensory information. This difficulty can occur in any sensory area (noise, touch, taste, smell, sight, balance and proprioception). People can be hyper (over) or hypo (under) sensitive to certain sensory stimuli, or both. In some cases, this can be extremely stressful and may even be experienced by the person as painful. Although some sensory issues diminish as the person gets older, they can nevertheless impact the person's ability to find and keep employment.
In this section you will find a description of some of the sensory issues autistic individuals experience as well as suggestions on how to most effectively deal with these issues. Sensory issues experienced by autistic individuals can include:
The most common sensory issue amongst autistic individuals concerns noise. People may find it difficult to hear certain sounds. Other sounds, such as a noisy open-plan office or the noise of a fire alarm, may be experienced extremely intensely. The person may not be able to filter out background noise and may lose eye contact in order to be able to focus on a conversation.
People may not realize if they are handling people or things roughly. They may have a correspondingly high pain threshold and may not feel heat, cold or pain easily. Other types of touch (such as hand-shaking or certain clothing) may be experienced as uncomfortable or, in extreme cases, as painful.
People may be under-sensitive to certain tastes and may enjoy eating particularly spicy foods which others may find unbearable. Other tastes (flavours or textures) may be experienced as extremely unpleasant and the person may choose to always eat the same type of food.
Some people may not be able to perceive certain smells (even their own). Other smells, such as perfume or particular foods, may be experienced extremely intensely to the extent that the person feels ill or even nauseous.
Some people may be sensitive to certain types of lighting and may find them painful to look at. Others may not be able to see certain objects clearly and may have trouble catching or holding things or are generally a little clumsy. They may prefer to focus on small details rather than trying to take in everything around them.
Some autistic people may experience problems with the vestibular system (1) and may have difficulties with balance. Some people may rock or rotate their bodies in order to stimulate themselves (known as stimming - see below). Other people may have difficulty controlling their movements. They may find sporting activities challenging or may have an uncoordinated or awkward walking style.
Proprioception is the relative position of neighbouring parts of the body and the strength of effort employed in movement (2). Some people may find it hard to estimate the proximity of their own body to other people and objects. They may stand too close to other people or may bump into people or objects. Others may have difficulty with fine motor skills or may have poor posture.
Although not limited to autism, some autistic individuals may suffer from a rare neurological phenomenon known as synesthesia in which certain sensory stimuli lead to additional sensations. For example, they may perceive a certain colour when they hear a particular sound or see a particular number or letter.
Some autistic people display repetitive behaviours or bodily movements, also known as stimming. These behaviours vary depending on the individual but may include hand flapping, rocking, repeating actions or words, or pacing up and down. For some people this is a calming mechanism when sensory issues become overwhelming. For others, who may be under-sensitive to certain sensory stimuli, it is a way to stimulate themselves.
Keep the noise down!
Allow the person to wear earplugs or to listen to soft music in order to minimize background noise. If possible, hold meetings on a one-to-one basis in a quiet separate office.
Dealing with touch
If the person is sensitive to certain materials, consider allowing them to wear alternative work clothes (or materials) so that they feel less stressed.
If holding meetings that last for several hours, build in regular breaks into the meeting schedule so that the person can move about and alleviate stress.
Create an ideal work space
The work space should be situated in a quiet area of the room and not near the toilets, coffee corner or canteen. If possible, allocate a stable work space so the person does not need to adjust each time to a new environment (and possible new sensory issues). If sharing a desk, consider putting up a partition to minimize distractions. Allow the person to wear sunglasses if they are oversensitive to light.
Allow for stimming
Try not to prevent a person from stimming as this is an important mechanism for reducing stress or stimulation. Instead, consider offering them a separate room for stimming.
Allow the person time out or a short break in a quiet neutral room to help them cope with sensory issues. Working flexible hours may also help the person to cope with sensory overload.
If sensory issues become extreme, the person may suffer a type of meltdown - a feeling of loss of control in which they may become overly critical, loud or aggressive, or their body may shut down completely and they become withdrawn. For more information on sensory overload watch this video.
1: Vestibular system: the sensory system located in the inner ear that enables us to determine the position of our bodies in space and to maintain balance and posture