Contributor: Thomas Frazier, II, PhD
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For many kids, spotting a fire truck might be a high point in the day. But what happens when the blaring sirens or flashing lights trigger sensory overload?
That’s often the case for children with autism. Many experience what we call “hypersensitivity” when it comes to hearing, vision, touch, smell or other senses. It’s even part of how we make a diagnosis at times, along with repetitive behaviors and social skills development.
But did you know many children on the autism spectrum actually have the opposite concern — hyposensitivity, or dulled senses? For example, they may get bumps and bruises but show no outward signs of feeling pain.
“We tend to think hypersensitivity is more common than hyposensitivity. But that may be partly because hypersensitivity is easier to spot.”
Thomas Frazier II, PhD
Director, Center for Pediatric Behavioral Health, Center for Autism
On top of that, one recent study examined differences in the sense of smell. In the study, children with autism did not have the same response to pleasant (like flowers) or unpleasant (like rotten fish) odors as their peers.
It was a small study, and it wasn’t looking specifically at whether the children were hypersensitive or hyposensitive. But still, it’s one more bit of evidence that the senses and responses to those senses are not quite the same for kids with autism. It may even aid with diagnosis tools one day.
For parents, both hypersensitivity and hyposensitivity can present challenges. But there are ways to help your child adjust.
When the senses are overwhelming
Hypersensitivity can show up in many forms. A child covering his ears to block out a noisy environment is one. But hearing is just one of the senses. Children can react to everything from busy visual environments to the texture of their clothes.
On the surface, the easiest thing to do is avoid the trigger. Once you’ve seen your child in distress or been through a public meltdown, it’s tough to put yourself in that situation again. In some cases, that’s the right approach, too. If your child gets overwhelmed at a baseball game, rushing back to a baseball game right away is not a great idea.
But don’t avoid all potentially busy situations. Instead, bring up any hypersensitivity issues with your child’s doctors, teachers and behavioral therapists, who can work with you to develop ways of easing into those sensory experiences.
This “desensitizing” process takes time and practice. But it’s important to adapt rather than just avoiding. For many children, the social skills practice they get out in the world — even in tough environments — is too important in the long term to give it up.
When the senses are dulled
We tend to think hypersensitivity is more common than hyposensitivity. But that may be partly because hypersensitivity is easier to spot.
You can see a boy covering his eyes to block out flashing lights. You can’t necessarily see a girl who has just fallen on her elbow but has no outward pain response.
The best thing you can do is watch closely if you suspect hyposensitivity, and bring it up with your child’s care team. Keep an eye out for bruises or scrapes that come without any complaints, for example.
In addition, work with your child to communicate when an injury does occur. If they don’t feel pain, reporting a fall off their bike won’t necessarily be automatic. Let them know to come to you and let you know — through speech, a speech-generating device or other means — when they fall or have an accident.
As with overcoming hypersensitivity, it takes practice and repetition.