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What Is The Relationship Between Autism And Sensory Processing Disorder – How You Can Help

Posted by Martin Hewitt on August 25, 2020

the image shows a picture of a head which is made up of many multi-colour jigsaw pieces. Some of the jigsaw pieces are breaking away from the head

Image by studiogstock from iStock

There are currently around 700,000 people with autism in the UK, with one in 100 children having received a diagnosis. But the condition remains shrouded in misunderstanding, not least when it comes to the relationship between autism and Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD).

In the National Autistic Society’s own words, autism is a “lifelong disability affecting how people communicate and interact with the world”. In short, it means those with autism see, hear, feel and experience things in very different ways to others. That might sound vague, so let’s think about specific examples.

Consider some of the things we say during a given day, and how confusing some of those sentences can be. For example, we may understand the expression, ‘Don’t cry over spilt milk’, and realise that it rarely means someone has literally spilt some milk, but what if we didn’t understand this? Now think of the things people don’t say, but infer through body language.

It doesn’t take long to appreciate just how complicated such interactions can be for someone who struggles to pick up on and understand things like social nuances, etiquette and turns of phrase and how challenging it is.

These problems can be compounded and even caused by stresses resulting from sensory processing difficulties, which can be given the clinical definitions of Sensory Processing Disorder or Sensory Integration Dysfunction.

In sufferers, the brain has trouble receiving and responding to information coming from our senses. This can range from subtle to severe, with 1 in 20 autistic people presenting associated problems, 1 in 6 of who are affected in daily life.

Many people think they have five senses — sight, sound, touch, taste, smell — but we actually have eight. The other three are vestibular, or balance, priprocieption, or spatial awareness, and interoception, which refers to an understanding of what’s happening in your own body. For instance, knowing you are hungry, or need some water, or some rest.

Anyone can have heightened (hyper) or reduced (hypo) sensitivity; we all have an element of the sensory seeker or sensory avoider within us. Someone may enjoy the deafening music and blinding lights of a nightclub, others definitely don’t! But for people with autism, these sensory differences can be far more pronounced and may pose more significant problems in everyday situations.

Fans of the Netflix series, ‘Atypical’, might remember early scenes in which protagonist Sam Gardner, a high school student on the autism spectrum, suffers panic-inducing meltdowns when the adolescent world, and its intense noise, breaks through the safety net of his noise-cancelling headphones. Sam struggles with sound hypersensitivity — one example of sensory processing difficulties. For others, they might come in the form of being unable to ride a bike or perceive when they need to eat. It might also be a combination of all three.

The show has been criticised for a degree of inauthenticity. Still, it’s hard not to see it in a favourable light for the relatively rounded treatment of Sam’s condition, and for being an accessible attempt to demystify ‘what autism is’. Nevertheless, a coming of age drama is never going to give us much more than a useful visual representation of autism and Sensory Processing Disorder, so thankfully, Chewigem — a company that has been making chewing, fidget and sensory aids for adults and children since 2010 — has produced a great video that gives an overview of the complicated and complex relationship between autism and the senses.

Although primarily aimed at parents with autistic children, much of the advice is relevant to both young people and adults who experience sensory processing difficulties. There are some great tips on how to get a better grasp of someone’s specific triggers, in turn helping build a more complete picture of what the world looks like from their perspective. And, as you’d expect, there are also a few recommendations on approaches to help overcome or alleviate problems through the use of aids designed with specific sensory needs in mind.

This is no marketing spiel, though. The potential benefits of using aids are widely acknowledged. In the simplest terms, they provide relief from potential hyper-sensory overload by way of offering something comforting to focus on, or they compensate for hypo-sensitivity by actively increasing stimuli. The company’s Berries, for example, are worn around the neck and aimed at hand and cuff chewers, reducing their anxiety through oral stimulation. Or, in lay terms, they give the wearer something to focus on, and distracts them from external stresses.

The Spinner is another fidget toy that hangs from the neck. Its rotating central button providing another way of relieving anxiety through repetitive actions and play.

For some autistic people, necklaces themselves may cause problems due to the way they feel, in which case Tread Bangles might be a more suitable option. These are worn on the wrist, and when chewed or squeezed, can help calm someone with autism and Sensory Processing Disorder. Think of them as subtle sensory sanctuaries, on hand at all times.

By nature, products like these travel with the person wherever they go, making them accessible for any potential trigger. The goal is to reduce anxiety before it begins to build, or at least restrict stress levels to a point before the experience becomes traumatic.

Memory plays a part in every social interaction; our past experiences inform how we perceive comparable situations. If an interaction has caused stress in the past, there’s a heightened risk the same will happen next time we are in a similar setting. So it stands to reason the more control the person has over individual situations or potential triggers, the better they will be able to manage the situation.

Of course, sensory aids are not limited to social crutches — some are focused on developing and improving motor skills, which are the movements and actions of our muscles and bone structure.

Whatever the purpose, repeated use can turn sensory processing aids into something closer to educational tools, helping people — whether that’s an autistic child or their parent — understand limitations and recognise capabilities. Words that are often downplayed or cast aside in conversations about autism, or indeed disabilities, in general.