Much of autism research has focused on the social, communication, and cognitive difficulties associated with the diagnosis.

An often ignored and, arguably, the most misunderstood component of the condition is sensory processing. Other than communication, this factor presents the greatest challenges to a family who is trying to help a child adapt to and accept the world around them. This area of autism research is just beginning to get the attention it deserves. And because sensory processing is not fully understood by the general public, it is often dismissed or ignored entirely. Additionally, even children without a developmental delay disorder can receive a stand-alone sensory processing disorder diagnosis. It is important for the conversation on this topic to become more commonplace. Many behavioral issues in children, in the classroom setting or beyond, can be avoided if a child is receiving the input he/she seeks and isn’t overloaded with input that can be overwhelming.

I first began to grasp the concept of sensory preferences when our son was evaluated for the first time. The occupational therapist explained to me that all humans are sensory beings who have sensory preferences and needs. Do you prefer your banana under ripe and firm or overripe and a bit mushy?

“A bit firm,” I answered.

“Firm is a sensation and you have a preference for firm bananas. Your son is the same way it’s just his aversions and preferences, for whatever reason, are a bit more noticeable and extreme.”

There are seven major sensory systems, and a child’s attempt to either seek or avoid particular sensory input may be subtle or overwhelmingly obvious in multiple categories. Below are these seven systems and examples of seeking or avoiding behaviors in each:

1. Visual System (sight)
Seeking behavior: preference for certain colors, shapes, bright lights, and visual patterns
Avoidant behavior: avoids certain lights, moving objects, or visual stimulating environments (classroom, grocery store, etc.)

2. Auditory System (hearing)
Seeking behavior: prefers specific genre of music like classical and will create repetitive sounds(clapping, snapping, drumming)
Avoidant behavior: avoids certain sounds of volumes

3. Olfactory System (smell)
Seeking behavior: will seek out to smell everything
Avoidant behavior: has a “strong sense of smell” and avoids or objects to certain ones (eggs, cigarette smoke, cleaning products)

4. Gustatory System (taste)
Seeking behavior: puts non-food objects in mouth, prefers certain extremes tastes: sour, spicy,etc.
Avoidant behavior: picky about certain foods and texture

5. Tactile System (touch)
Seeking behavior: fiddles with objects with hands
Avoidant behavior: pulls away when touched, doesn’t like hair to be brushed, tugs at or refuses to wear certain types of clothing

6. Vestibular System (movement)
Seeking behavior: spinning in circles, rocking back and forth, arm flapping
Avoidant behavior: avoids spinning activities

7. Proprioceptive System (joints and muscles)
Seeking behavior: squeeze hugs or crashing into people and objects, crawling, likes small cramped spaces, or sitting in small contained areas (we call them “cozy spots”)
Avoidant behavior: prefers light or soft touch

When you start to look for it; you’ll see it. If you search for your own sensory preferences first it may help you see others’. Our son didn’t necessarily like to jump on a trampoline, but would try to jump of the couch onto the hardwood floor. He didn’t want his back rubbed, but would run and crash into my husband and I right at bed time--“the crazy before the crash” we coined it. He seeks proprioceptive input and we’ve learned to give him “heavy” input. He doesn’t like soft sweet hugs, the ones that make a mom’s heart melt at the end of a long day. Rather, he asks for big squeeze hugs and he continues to ask me to “squeeze harder” until my arm aches and I can’t squeeze any longer. I’m convinced it is hurting him, but this how I get him to melt into my arms.

In homes and education, one of the fallacies regarding sensory input is that sensory activities should happen between, after, or as a break from learning. For particular sensory seekers, the learning can only happen at the time of input. For example, I verbally attempted to get my son to say the word “hi” for months. “Say, hi.” “Can you say hi?” “Huh-i. Hiiii.” To my frustration, the word never came. But as soon as the verbal cue for “hi” was paired with an exercise ball, joint pulling exercise the word rolled off his tongue as though he had said it 100s of times before.

Tonight at bedtime we were reading a book about the LST 325 located in Evansville. It’s docked downtown and serves as a living history museum of the massive WWII carrier ship. Little Acorn was literally army crawling under the bed as we read the gift store coloring book to him. My husband fussed at him to stay still and to be respectful and listen to mom’s story. I nudged him and quietly whispered, “Remember, movement means he’s learning and listening.”

An outside observer would have judged us to be unfit parents. But when the story (and army crawling) was over, we asked him what he thought about the welder. His response, “oh yeah. That person with the hot flame that melts the metal down and then when it cools it stays together like glue. Where does that metal come from? And where does glass come from?” Not only was he learning while he was moving, but, even more importantly, he was thinking.

I believe that as more sensory experiences are removed from children’s lives(with more screen time, less recess time, less outdoor time) the more we need to be add them in places they used to, and still are unaccepted—in the classroom, at story-time, or, as with kids with food aversions, during meals. Movement doesn’t always equate disrespect and inattentiveness.

A sensory processing disorder is typically “treated” with targeted occupational therapy or a sensory diet, but a big part of the therapy solution is simple and free—unrestrictive outdoor play(not playground equipment). Children will engage in activities, without instruction, that help fulfill their input needs and the outdoors provides the perfect therapy room for each of these opportunities. The old adage is true here, “Let kids be kids.” Don’t hover. If you find yourself using the phrases “don’t,” “be careful,” “don’t climb that,” and “don’t jump from there” then you may be limiting what their sensory seeking body needs. Allow two to three hours of unrestrictive outdoor play a day and see the results. And never ever let weather be an excuse for outdoor play—remember cold, hot, raindrops, and snow are all sensory experiences. I hope to see you around the neighborhood.