Stella Waterhouse, author of A Positive Approach to Autism, wrote this article for ACN Latitudes.
Sensory problems affect people from all walks of life, yet they usually receive little attention. They are found to varying degrees in people with dyslexia, attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders, autism or Asperger’s syndrome, as well as in the general population. The role of sensory disorders has not been well studied for obsessive compulsive disorder or Tourette syndrome, but some of the factors that have been anecdotally reported to trigger tics and obsessive symptoms appear to be related to the types of sensory problems discussed in this article. The focus will be on auditory problems.
It has long been accepted that people with autism demonstrate abnormal responses to sensory stimuli. Some professionals further suggest that people with autism actually experience sensory stimuli in an unusual way, that it is their bizarre perceptual experiences that cause the “abnormal” reactions. Whether this is true or not has yet to be determined, but the evidence for abnormal perceptual experiences has come from people with autism themselves. They repeatedly comment that their tactile, auditory, and visual experiences are, in some way, different from what others describe.
Interestingly, such sensory problems have long been recognized — and accurately assessed and treated-in the general field of developmental delay. For the purposes of this article, developmental delay refers to the child who omits a stage of early development, such as a child who walks before he crawls. This does not mean that the child will act younger than his or her age, but that some milestones will be different from those of other children. In milder cases, the youngster will learn skills to cope or compensate for the weaknesses, but functioning in specific areas may be impaired and increase vulnerability to problems later in life. These problems could include dyslexia, ADD, ADHD and Asperger’s syndrome. Autism would represent the more extreme end of the spectrum.
What causes sensory disorders? Metabolic and digestive problems or food intolerances are thought to be capable of both diminishing and magnifying sensory messages. They can disrupt the filtration process so that the person is unable to filter out irrelevant stimuli adequately. Research suggests that some sensory problems are hereditary and related to a family history that often included migraines, allergies, dyslexia or hyperactivity.
Which senses are affected? Perceptual problems encompass all the sensory systems: vision, hearing, smell, taste, and touch.
Is everyone affected in the same way? No. With the exception of the visual problems, which can be quite varied, perceptual difficulties basically fall into three categories: hypersensitive, hypo (under) sensitive, or a combination of both.
Smell, taste, and touch: While someone with hypersensitivity to smell may find that odors or fragrances can trigger migraines or tics, in autism and Asperger’s syndrome it can cause withdrawal. Variations in the sense of taste may increase the tendency toward food selectiveness, with some people seeking out strong flavors, and others only the blandest of foods. Food fads are especially common for those on the autistic spectrum. Then there is the tactile sense. Clothing can provide an irritation to those who are hypersensitive, and it can aggravate tics. When the sensitivity is extreme, it can lead some children to avoid being touched. In contrast, the child who is hyposensitive may actively seek out others for a “rough and tumble.”
The visual system: This accounts for approximately 70% of our information about the world and is therefore o vital importance. It is estimated that Scotopic Sensitivity/Irlen Syndrome affects 15 to 20% of the general population and approximately 50% of people with dyslexia, some of whom also have conditions such as migraine, allergies or hypoglycemia. Some studies suggest the figure will prove similar or higher within the autism/Asperger’s group. Comments of visual dysfunction in the accounts of people with autism or Asperger’s syndrome include phrases like: people with empty faces; a strand of hair that looks like a piece of spaghetti; or things appearing smaller than they actually are.
The Auditory System: Hyperacuity affects approximately 45% of people with tinnitus and is thought, in some cases, to contribute to the development of the tinnitus. Sufferers experience discomfort from everyday sounds like people eating or talking, running vacuum cleaners, etc., and they seek to avoid such noises wherever possible. This can lead to social isolation. Some people are unaware that they are hypersensitive though they become increasingly stressed and irritable when exposed to particular noises.
Guy Bérard developed techniques for working with auditory sensory disorders. Now retired, he concluded that our hearing dictates our behavior. Perhaps in time we shall find that some people’s behavior is also conditioned by those sounds they cannot avoid hearing. Auditory effects can be mild — such as commonly confusing the order of syllables and numbers, or discrimination problems like hearing “pike” for “bike,” or “petal” for “pedal.” Moderate levels are found with learning disabilities. While some have auditory dyslaterality (see chart below) others may have hyperacusis and find some ordinary sounds difficult to cope with. Many also have an inability to habituate to sounds, i.e. they are unable to shut out background sounds, making concentration difficult. Severe cases include people with autistic features. Hypersensitivity can lead them to withdraw from situations or find other ways of blocking sounds out.
Auditory problems: There are several different approaches including Tomatis and auditory discrimination programs, but one of the most well known is Auditory -Integration – Training (AIT). Developed by Dr Bérard to cure his own impending deafness, this is now used to treat people with a range of difficulties including dyslexia, learning difficulties, autism and depression; the common link being some type of hearing anomaly.
|Auditory Disorder||Type of Problem|
|Auditory dyslaterality: Hearing some sounds well with one ear but not the other.||Slowed auditory perception; Letters are “lost” or sequence misheard; Often associated with dyslexia, ADD or ADHD.|
|Inability to cut out particular sounds.||Loss of concentration in situations with background noise.|
|Supersensitive hearing.||Often not perceived as a problem.|
|Hyperacusis: Often associated with tinnitus. Stressed by sounds that do not bother others.||Avoidance of particular situations; makes socializing, shopping, traveling, etc. difficult.|
|Loudness discomfort.||Troubled by auditory stimuli that does not bother others.|