Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Sensory Issues

I remember back to a Christmas a couple years ago, just after we learned of Konner’s diagnosis. My family is not huge, but we had between 15 and 20 people at my parent’s house. Dinner was served and everyone was enjoying the company of others; everyone except Konner that is. I had already done a little research, and knew that the gathering could be an issue.

Let me explain. Children with Autism usually have sensory issues. This can mean that they are over sensitive, or under-sensitve. In fact, sometimes they are oversensitive in one area, such as taste or hearing, and under-sensitive to others, like touch and smell (just examples). Konner seems to be oversensitive to hearing and under-sensitive to touch.

On this day he had all that he could stand of the conversation, different aromas of food lingering, and general distractions that come with family gatherings. He said he was ready to go home. At that point we had not opened the presents and I told him we needed to stay until we did. A few minutes later he was in the middle of a meltdown. What should have happened was that we should have left at the first sign of overstimulation.

Families should understand that this is something that will happen, and you should be sensitive to the needs of the child. They are in discomfort and sometimes pain when overstimulation happens. You should never do anything to escalate the situation.

Think of it this way. We can filter most things out in our lives. When we are sitting in a classroom the flickering lights, sound of the air conditioner, the perfume of the person next to us, and the person clicking a pen next to us are all things that we tend to get used to, or tune out. However, for a person on the spectrum this is not an easy thing to do. Imagine trying to concentrate while all of this is prominent in your mind.

When over-stimulated, autistic children crave pressure to help with the sensory issues. Let’s look at some things that you can do to help with sensory issues. I can only speak as a parent with a child who is under-sensitive to touch. The following are a few things that we have come up with to help Konner. I can’t say that they work 100 percent of the time, but they do tend to work on occasion. There are times when some work and other times they don’t. It’s really just a trial-and-error type of situation when he is over stimulated.

We have used weighted vests. Occasionally this will work, but is not the most productive method. This is one of the most practical at school though. We were concerned with Konner standing out at school (we have never hidden the fact that he is autistic, in fact it seems to be easier if we let everyone know).  We purchased him a hunting vest in his size that was camouflage. The pockets are filled with weighted beanbags. All the kids think it’s cool when he wears it.

At home we have developed a “Konner Sandwich” to help him. This consists of me or Jennifer placing a pillow or big blanket on top of him and then laying on him ourselves and applying pressure to calm him.

Konner likes to sleep at night with blankets, pillows, stuffed animals, etc. piled up on top of him. This heavy padding on him is another way he deals with sensory issues. This has developed into another technique we have begun using called a “burrito”. In fact he will ask to be “wrapped up like a burrito” when he begins to get over-stimulated. This involves spreading a large blanket on the floor and rolling him in it until he can barely move. This has been the most affective recently.

Other techniques to try would be a massage. When you rub their backs, arms, legs, etc. it seems to help comfort them. You may even try to squeeze their head. It sounds crazy, but it tends to work.

These are just a few things that we use that seem to help. I also know that some children with Autism don’t like to be touched, which makes this more difficult.

According to, there are several techniques and each child should be approached differently.

“Many children with autism seek out certain kinds of physical contact, but what they prefer is as unique as the child themselves. Some may prefer hand holding or big bear hugs but have a strong aversion to light touch, such as a gentle hand on the back or arm. For individuals with tactile sensory issues, a light brush on the arm is highly irritating. Others may find it very relaxing to have their arm or back scratched. Often, a negative reaction to being touched is more a response to fear. If they weren't expecting it, they may become upset. Likewise, if they are already upset, trying to calm them with a hug might only add fuel to the fire.”

Temple Grandin, one of the most famous autistic people in the world, craved that feeling so much that she developed her own “squeeze machine” to help her when she was over-stimulated. I’ve also heard of rolling machines that have been built to literally roll them through a rolling-pin style apparatus.

There are many ways to deal with this, and I’m sure that many of you have already developed your own ways of dealing with sensory issues. I would really like to hear some, and share them with everyone else.

No matter what you do, it’s good to research techniques. I hope this helps in some way.

Disclaimer: I am in no way claiming to be an expert. I’m just a father who is trying to learn as much about Autism as I can to help my child. I hope that you all can learn from me, and I from you. I ask anyone who has questions or comments about something I have written, or autism, please contact me at I will try to answer questions as I have time, and if I find it interesting enough I may touch on it in my column.

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