Sensory Interventions and Supports for ASD
Research findings indicate that children on the autism spectrum, including those with Asperger’s Syndrome, have under-responsivity and over-responsivity (sensory modulation disorder) in multiple sensory systems (Tomcheck & Dunn, 2007). Sensory modulation disorder is described as “a problem with turning sensory messages into controlled behaviors that match the nature and intensity of the sensory information” (Miller, 2006, p. 12). Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) who demonstrate this sensory mismatch with their activities of daily living experience physical, emotional, social and behavioral difficulties. Included in this article are some basic sensory suggestions that can be implemented in school, home and community settings for children with ASD.
Sensory input that has deep-pressure touch or heavy work aspects is organizing and modulating to the nervous system and ultimately helps an individual with ASD attain and maintain focus and emotional well-being. Some sensory strategies that have this modulating affect on the nervous system involve tasks or objects with qualities that impact the proprioceptive system. The proprioceptive system is part of the nervous system that includes receptors in the joints, muscles and tendons that perceive contraction, stretching and compression. Examples of sensory modulating tasks involve extracurricular activities such as swimming, martial arts, yoga and playground play, and chores such as wiping the table, carrying groceries, digging in the garden or lifting a laundry basket. Modulating objects include clothing such as Under Armour® (which has stretchy fabric that fits snuggly), a bean bag chair to sit in, or weighted items such as a vest, blanket, wristband or lap bag. Note: The use of a weighted vest or blanket needs to be monitored by an occupational therapist. Additional modulating supports include chewing gum; sucking thick liquids through a straw; smelling cinnamon, coffee beans or cloves; using a visual picture schedule; and listening to classical music.
There are times when a child with ASD needs calming due to unexpected changes in routines, sudden loud sounds (such as from an ambulance siren), fear of flying insects, the smell of garbage or the tactile sensation of an uncomfortable texture. In these scenarios, a child with ASD may demonstrate a neurological stress response (over-responsivity) to a typical daily event. A stress response is a protective mechanism in which the body perceives a threat and thus releases adrenaline to prepare the body to fight or flee. The child’s behavior may deteriorate into tantrums, harming him/herself or others, or becoming rigid and controlling. Sensory interventions that facilitate a calming environment include a quiet retreat area with the child’s favorite toy or stuffed animal, natural lighting or the use of blue-colored light bulbs and environmental sounds such as ocean waves. Sensory supports for calming include deep breathing, gentle rocking, smelling vanilla or chamomile scents, looking at a lava lamp, tasting warm but bland foods, and wearing tag-less clothing and seamless socks.
Reprinted with the permission of the Autism Society.