Do you have a friend, student, spouse, or loved one on the autism spectrum? Are some of their senses hyposensitive? Is hyperactivity or sensory seeking impacting their lives? Here are ways you can help them receive the stimulation they crave, so they can be comfortable.
- Expect hyperactivity. Because their sensory needs are greater, they will need to move more in order to meet those needs. This is natural, and it will always be part of their lives. You can help them manage it, but don’t expect it to go away.
- Exercise together. Sports and heavy work can help release pent-up energy, helping the autistic person focus better. Here are some ideas:
- Football and baseball
- Wall push ups
- Chores (let them lift the heavy stuff)
- Horseback riding
- Dragging children (e.g. siblings, sons, or daughters) around on blankets
- Expect stimming, and don’t remark on it if it isn’t actively causing harm. Stimming is an easy way to fulfill their sensory needs, and it is an important coping mechanism. Don’t assume that just because it doesn’t look useful to you doesn’t mean that it isn’t useful to them.
- Help them find a variety of stims to use.
- Talk to them if their stimming is destructive (e.g. ripping the wallpaper) or broaching others’ personal space (e.g. playing with his sister’s hair without her consent). Help them find an alternative stim.
- Realize that symptoms vary, both from day to day and from person to person. Stress can make sensory processing more difficult, and their needs might be different from one day to the next.
- Expect them to be hyposensitive to some things and hypersensitive to others. For example, maybe they need lots of touch and activity, but bright lights bother them.
- Even within sections, some steps may not apply to them. Autistic people are very diverse!
- Find out what other autistic people do to handle Sensory Processing Disorder. Autistic people have a large presence online, where they share tips with each other about how to handle various problems. Check out the #askanautistic and #actuallyautistic hashtags to begin.
- Help them find a good occupational therapist. An occupational therapist can help them build a sensory diet, or variety of activities to help meet their needs. This will reduce hyperactivity in the long run. They can also teach useful coping techniques, such as stims and exercises.
- Be patient and accommodating. Sensory seeking requires a lot of time, and under stimulation can be difficult to handle. Allow them to be themselves and meet their needs.
Autistic people with hyposensitive vision may be constantly attracted to motion and bright colors.
- Decorate rooms with bright colors and plenty of decorations. Put posters of favorite things and colors on the walls, and don’t shy away from rainbow or bright patterns.
- Find stim toys that they can look at. Here are some things they may enjoy:
- Snow globes, glitter jars, or a bottle with food coloring, water, and cooking oil (Simply shake)
- Lava lamps
- Sparkly beads and objects
- Moving fans
- Animated gif patterns (e.g. the “Mesmerizing Gifs” thread on reddit)
- When shopping together, pick out brightly-colored things. It’ll help moderate their need to stim, and it’ll make your space more cheerful as a bonus.
If an autistic person has hyposensitive hearing, they may be very loud. Finding ways to meet their needs without infringing on others’ needs can be a challenge.
- Find times and places where they can make lots of noise without bothering others. This may be outdoors, in a room away from everyone else, or in a place where everyone has left for now.
- Invest in a good pair of headphones. This way, they can turn up the volume on their computer or TV without bothering anyone.
- Get some earplugs and white noise—not for them, but for yourself. Autistic people with hyposensitive hearing can be quite noisy. Meeting them partway will help both parties be happy.
- Join in the noise making! Sing along to music together. Turn kitchen pots and pans into a drumset. Chase each other around the playground, giggle, and scream. A little noisy playtime can be a great bonding experience.
EditSmell and Taste
- Buy strong-smelling products when you can. Hyposensitive autistic people may enjoy smelling the following:
- Scented candles and air fresheners
- Strong-smelling soap, shampoo, and body wash
- Spicy or strong food
- Keep little candies or gum around. Some hyposensitive people will put inedible things in their mouths (necklaces, clothing, whatever they can find). When this happens, you can offer them a candy or piece of gum instead. For young children, explain why: objects are germy, and only food belongs in their mouths.
- Children can be taught to ask for candy/gum when they want something to chew on.
- Give them package of gum so they can get some whenever they want it.
- Try buying them chewy jewelry if they do this often. These can be found at special needs stores like Stimtastic or Fun and Function.
- When cooking, put spices on the side. This way, the hyposensitive autistic person can pile it on, while others can apply a tolerable amount. (This also helps hypersensitive people who can’t handle spice.)
- Always have spice on the table, even if people don’t usually add spice to a given meal. This way, if the autistic person refuses to eat a food because it is “bland” or “tasteless,” you can offer them the spices.
- Have plenty of spicy and flavorful foods available. Your daughter may eat peppers like they are potato chips. (This can also be entertaining to onlookers.)
- Consider making a game of who can eat the spiciest foods. See who can challenge the champion.
EditTouch and Movement
- If you notice that they have a hard time sitting calmly, take a break. Let them get up, run around, bounce off the walls, and do whatever they need to do. This will allow them to release their energy so they can focus again.
- Stim toys, like stress balls and tangle fidgets, can also help with focusing and sitting calmly. Try keeping a box of stim toys that your loved one can grab from as needed.
- Get an exercise ball or sensory seat wedge. The autistic person can sit on the wedge or ball when others use chairs, allowing them to bounce and wiggle to their content while being able to focus on whatever is in front of them.
- Teachers can get this as part of the student’s IEP or special needs plan.
- Keep an eye out for injuries. Sometimes, autistic people may get hurt without noticing it, because their sense of pain is hyposensitive. If you notice something odd, mention it right away, in case they didn’t know.
- This can vary greatly—from not feeling a bug that landed on their arm to not realizing that their leg is broken.
- Talk to children about pushing or hitting. Due to a hyposensitivity to pain, they may not always realize that these things hurt other people. Make it clear that others have different pain thresholds, and if they need input, they should push against walls (not people).
- Massage them or hug them tightly. This provides the deep pressure they may crave, and also shows them that you love them.
- Identify a cushioned area (couch, bed, a pile pillows) that they can crash into. Hyposensitive autistic people may love to run into things, and it’s important that they use a place that can’t hurt them. Encourage the person to go land on their “crash pad” if they are getting hyper.
- Try out the “crash pad” together. It may be more fun than you think!
- Redirect an Autistic Child’s Harmful Stims
- Interpret Autistic Body Language
- Help an Autistic Family Member
- Support an Autistic Person
- Cope With Sensory Integration Disorder
- Help a Hypersensitive Autistic Person
- Talk to an Autistic Person
EditSources and Citations
- Cynthia Kim: Sensory Seeking
- Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism: Sensory Seekers and Sensory Avoiders
- Helping Your Child Cope with Sensory Needs
- Cynthia Kim: Sensory Diet (contains a list of ideas)