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Ten Myths about High Functioning Autism and Sensory Integration Disorder – Part One

“Of all the characteristics associated with autism, people on the spectrum consistently state that understanding and addressing how their bodies interpret sensations is one of the most beneficial things that neurotypicals (people without autism) can do to be supportive and develop insight into the world of high functioning autism (HFA).” This article was originally published by Toni Boucher and appeared on her HubPages where she has many wonderful articles.

Treat Sensory Issues Before Addressing Socialization and Communication? YES!

Of all the characteristics associated with autism, people on the spectrum consistently state that understanding and addressing how their bodies interpret sensations is one of the most beneficial things that neurotypicals (people without autism) can do to be supportive and develop insight into the world of high functioning autism (HFA).

Although people on the autism spectrum have been saying it for several years, treating sensory issues first is a relatively new concept for autism professionals who are typically accustomed to addressing socialization and communication difficulties before and sometimes to the exclusion of sensory problems.

Of particular concern for professionals is the lack of research indicating the effectiveness of sensory integration therapy for ASD’s. While there is some emerging evidence that suggests deep tissue massage may be helpful1, more research is needed to give sensory dysfunction the attention it deserves and provide effective treatment options for individuals experiencing sensory dysfunction.

Recent changes to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual’s fifth edition (DSM V) by The American Psychiatric Association (APA) emphasize the degree to which an individual experiences restricted and repetitive behaviors associated with sensory integration (SI) challenges and may provide a framework to help professionals better address sensory issues if used appropriately. Criteria B 4 of the DSM V specifically states “Hyper-or hypo-reactivity to sensory input or unusual interest in sensory aspects of environment”.

What Exactly is Sensory Dysfunction?

“Sensory dysfunction” is defined for our purposes as the body’s inability to interpret input through the senses (such as taste or smell) to a useful degree; In other words sensory dysfunction occurs any time a person experiences too much or not enough feedback from their world. “External stimuli” simply means anything that can affect any of the senses: a traffic light, an alarm clock, a hug, perfume, squeaky wheel, bright wall hangings or a crowd of people.

Common Sensory Myths

Myth #1: Humans only have five senses: Taste, touch, sight, smell and sound.

Fact #1: In addition to taste, touch, sight, smell and sound there are two additional senses sometimes called “the hidden senses” or vestibular and proprioceptive senses.

“Vestibular” refers to our sense of balance that is regulated by the inner ear. It creates the awareness of space, gravity and movement as well as our head and body position in relation to the earth.

“Proprioceptive” refers to our awareness of what our body parts are doing and where they are in relation to the world around us. Our muscles, joints and ligaments provide the body with this information.

Myth #2: People on the spectrum experience sight, sound, touch, taste, smell, balance and body awareness “just like everybody else”. When they complain about specific sensations, they are making them up to avoid something, seek attention or it’s just a psychological problem.

Fact #2: Sensory dysfunction is real.Individuals on the autism spectrum encounter significantly heightened sensory feedback to their bodies. This can cause confusion, disorientation and even pain in some cases. People on the spectrum may also experience diminished sensations so they are unaffected by events that would cause a person to feel discomfort or pain such as a broken bone or an illness.

People who are over sensitive to specific sounds, touch, taste, sight or smells are referred to ashypersensitive. People who do not feel as much as the typical person are referred to as hyposensitive.

As a matter of fact, people with HFA frequently report that their sensory experiences and perceptions play a significant role in every aspect of their lives including their ability to function in their environment and relate to other people. This is a crucial point for neurotypicals to understand: When a person is hypersensitive and/or hyposensitive, this imbalance can affect every aspect of life including the ability to communicate and socialize effectively! Addressing sensory dysfunction can contribute to improvements in communication and socialization for some people with HFA.

Unfortunately, neurotypicals all too often dismiss sensory dysfunction, having never experienced it. Therefore, although it is one of the most important issues identified by people on the spectrum, it is also one of the least understood aspects of autism. The result is that the individual experiencing its difficulties is offered very little support to cope with their sensory challenges.

On a positive note, many people on the spectrum possess an acute awareness of their bodies and any subtle changes that can be helpful when trying to determine helpful diets, medications or necessary treatments. Some of these individuals utilize their heightened senses to their advantage in their careers and personal lives. Keep in mind that each person is unique and sensory issues may be very overwhelming for some individuals with HFA and affect others only mildly.

Myth #3: People cannot be both hypersensitive and hyposensitive at the same time.

Fact #3: It is possible to have both hypersensitivity and hyposensitivity.

For example, it is possible to be hypersensitive to certain sounds such as a DVD rotating in a player, but not be affected by the sound of a firecracker exploding.

Myth #4: People who “self stim” (for example: rock back and forth, flick their fingers in front of their eyes, twitch their necks to the side, flap their hands) have no control over when and where they exhibit these behaviors and if they demonstrate control over these behaviors then they do not have autism.

Fact #4: Many high functioning individuals are able to regulate when and where they “self stim”.

They have learned that certain behaviors are not considered socially acceptable and make special efforts to keep these behaviors out of sight in certain environments or around certain people.

Myth #5: People with HFA “self stim” to annoy or upset other people.

Fact #5: People with HFA typically “self stim” to relieve anxiety or because it feels good.

Furthermore, it is important to understand that people on the spectrum often do not generalize new information and skills from one setting and situation to another. For example, just because a person with HFA has learned not to rock at school does not mean they will automatically transfer that knowledge to the grocery store or grandma’s house.

Click here to continue to Part Two…