Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Dr Katy Unwin, researches sensory processing in autism and offers the following advice for those at home
We know that most people with autism, and some people without autism, have sensory issues. For those on the spectrum, noises that go unnoticed by many can sound like a booming drum. Equally, lights that seem unobtrusive to most can be glaring and extremely bright. And yet, those on the spectrum may also be under-stimulated across the senses, needing more sensory input. During this time when we are all stuck in our homes, I would like to call attention to these sensory issues in the hope that with a little thought, we can help meet our own sensory needs, or the needs of those on the spectrum whom we live with.
Being sensory detectives
Your starting point is to consider what the sensory needs are and to do this, you need to become a sensory detective. If your child on the spectrum likes a particular toy or activity, consider what sensory input they may be seeking from it. For example, if they love running their hands along the walls and floors, they may be enjoying the different textures they feel. Alternatively, if you are noticing that they are becoming withdrawn or agitated, consider if there is some sensory input that may be causing them discomfort. If they become upset when the dishwasher comes on, perhaps they are feeling over-stimulated by the whirling noise.
Create more stimulation
Once you’ve pinpointed a need for more stimulation, it’s time to get creative. Everything we use in every-day life has a sensory quality. Here are some ideas:
- Putting pasta or rice in a plastic or metal bottle will give a great crunching sound when shaken.
- Scrunching up some aluminium foil and sticking it to some card will create a bumpy texture.
- Putting different colour scarves over a torch or a phone flashlight could create a light show!
Go around your house smelling, touching, looking and listening and see what sensory experiences you could create!
Create less stimulation
Your sensory detective mode might have revealed too much sensory input, rather than too little. In this case, why not create a sensory calming space? This can be in a small room or even a tent or cubby house made out of a sheet. The aim in this space is to reduce all the stimulation possible across the senses. Fill the space with comfy cushions and make the light level low. Sit in the space and ask yourself, what can I see, hear, smell and feel? Is there a small buzzing sound from a plug or a smell coming from the garden? Try to reduce these as much as possible so that the space feels quiet on all the senses.
There’s no one-size-fits-all guide to meeting sensory needs, so just try things out and see how it goes.