Bright Lights, Loud Noises


Also Read Part II – Therapies for Sensory Integration Disorder

Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD)often have to deal with extreme sensitivities to everyday sights, sounds, smells and touch.

This sensitivity is not one of their “official symptoms” as described in the Physician’s Desk Reference doctors use for diagnosis. There are thousands of parents and therapists, however, all too familiar with this condition. Some experts believe these sensitivities may cause children with autism to tantrum and “meltdown” at first, but eventually the behaviors become learned. Autistic children hold on to them because of the rigidity of their personalities. Nevertheless, certain studies indicate that between 42% and 88% of people with autism have sensory processing issues.

Auditory Issues

Children with autism seem to hear sounds others do not. They can be driven to distraction by noises everyone else filters out, such as the buzz of fluorescent lights or the brush of corduroy against a desk. The inability to filter out background noises makes it hard for many of these children to follow conversations or listen to their teachers’ directions.

Some sounds even seem painful to autistic children. For example, a small child may scream at the sound of the vacuum cleaner or a teen covers his ears at the sound of a police siren. One little boy was so scared of the fire drill siren he sat in fear that it would go off. His mother had to homeschool him during Fire Safety Month.

Auditory sensitivity makes taking children with autism to noisy places like video arcades or restaurants especially challenging.

Taste and Smell

Many experts believe children with autism rely more on their senses of smell and taste than sight and hearing. They have strong memories of smells. For example, some can recognize people by their unique body odors.

Certain smells like food, cleaning fluids, perfumes, shampoos and lotions can make them nauseous. This makes it hard for them to handle routine places like the school cafeteria or shopping mall cosmetic counters.

An autistic child’s acute sense of smell and taste may also create eating problems. She may limit herself to certain foods, eat one food at a time, not allow foods to touch on her plate, and so forth.

Many autistic children are prone to nausea and vomit easily. Everyday substances like toothpaste can make them sick to their stomachs.

Sensitivity to Touch

If overly sensitive (hypersensitive) to touch, an autistic child may find tags on clothing very irritating. He may only wear certain fabrics or clothes that are old and soft from washings. Certain textures like glue can be difficult for him to work with. He screams in the shower because he cannot stand the feel of water on his skin. One autistic child would hit anyone who touched him– a fact his little brother manipulated to get him in trouble all the time.

Hyposensitivity, or under-sensitivity, can cause autistic children not to feel or report pain. They may not react to temperatures. In some cases, a child may not even respond when touched.

Visual Issues

Visual problems are less common. Perhaps only one in five persons with autism has them. Some children with autism get upset by certain pictures, colors or bright lights. Others experience colors as sounds. They often stand too close to others or stare at them inappropriately. They can search for an object and not notice that it is right in front of them. Though not necessarily a visual problem, many people with autism have troubles maintaining eye contact.

Proprioceptive and Vestibular Disorders

These involve orienting oneself in space, keeping the body in balance, and maintaining good posture and movement. In normal people, a complex network of nerves works together with the senses naturally. You can sit down without looking at your chair. You know where your feet are. You know how to straighten your shirt without looking into a mirror. Most of these functions could be completed more or less unconsciously.

Children with autism have problems with these abilities. t Activities that involve complex movements, changes in speed and hand-eye coordination such as handwriting or playing baseball become nightmares for many autistic children. Even climbing stairs could present problems for these children.


Interventions are Crucial for these Sensory Issues

There are many therapeutic techniques to help with sensory integration and sensitivity such as occupational, speech, and physical therapy. To read more about such interventions, go to the article entitled “Sensory Integration.”

Also Read Part II – Therapies for Sensory Integration Disorder


“Autism Spectrum Disorders (Pervasive Developmental Disorders)” A detailed booklet that describes symptoms, causes, and treatments, with information on getting help and coping”, Published by The National Institute of Health, 2004, posted at

Bashe, Patricia and Barbara Kirby. The Oasis Guide to Asperger Syndrome. New York: Crown Publishers, 2005.

Jensen, Audra. When Babies Read. Philadelphia: Kingsley Publishers, 2005.

Kennedy, Diane. ADHD Autism Connection. Colorado Springs, CO: Waterbrook Press, 2002.

Lovecky, Deirdre. Different Minds. Philadelphia: Kingsley Publishers, 2004.

Myles, Brenda; Cook, Catherine; Miller, Nancy; Rinner, Louann; Robbins, Lisa. Asperger Syndrome and Sensory Issues. Shawnee Mission, KS: Autism Asperger Publishing, 2000.

Myles, Brenda and Jack Southwick. Asperger Syndrome and Difficult Moments. Shawnee Mission, KS: Autism Asperger Publishing, 1999.

Powers, Michael. Children with Autism. Bethesda, MD: Woodbine House, 2000.

Sohn, Alan and Cathy Grayson. Parenting Your Asperger Child. New York: Perigee Books, 2005.


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The team behind Your Little Professor is dedicated to providing factual information for parents and caretakers of adolescents on the Autism Spectrum Disorder. We believe in connecting families to the necessary resources in order to help individuals on the spectrum succeed in day-to-day life.

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