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Symptoms of Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) in Autistic Adults – Part I: Hyper-Reactivity

Kids having a quarrel and fight - tough parenthood concept

Kids having a quarrel and fight – tough parenthood concept

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is commonly found among those with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Like Autism, SPD is a neurological disorder which affects the way the brain processes sensory stimuli, such as sights, sounds, taste, touch, and smells. Difficulties can be with general sensory modulation or by being over or under stimulated by sensory input. Under stimulation can cause sensory seeking activities. Some adults may have difficulty with sensory discrimination, sensory-based motor skills, internal regulation, or difficulty with social and emotional situations.

General Modulation Difficulties in Autistic Adults

Hyper reactivity to sensory stimuli or over-responsiveness is common in people with Autism. Autistic adults with SPD may have unusual eating habits, or unusual sleeping habits. They may have a strong need to eat at the same times of the day, or to eat the same foods over and over. There may be great difficulty in transitioning from one activity to another, whether it is major life changes or small everyday activities. These adults can become engrossed in one single activity for long periods of time while tuning out everything else around them, or spend hours at a time on fantasy, video games, or other activities.

Tactile (Touch) Sensitivities in Autistic Adults

Those with tactile (touch) hyper-reactivity may be bothered by clothing; certain materials, seems, ties, belts, pantyhose or turtlenecks may be unbearable. They may need to remove all the tags from their clothing. They may be bothered by “light touch” like when someone is lightly touching/rubbing their hands, face, legs, or back, may be excessively ticklish, or become distressed by others touching them which can lead to difficulty “snuggling” with a partner.Adults with autism displaying hyper-sensitivities may be very sensitive to pain, dislike the feeling of showers or getting splashed. They may have difficulty going to the beach being irritated by the sand blowing on their skin. They may avoid touching anything “messy”, be unable to wear stiff clothes without soaking them in fabric softener, or hate wearing shoes and/or socks.

Vestibular (Movement) Sensitivities

Autistic adults may have difficulty with vestibular (movement related) sensitivities may frequently get car sick, air sick, or motion sickness; be fearful of heights, have difficulty riding elevators, escalators, or moving sidewalks. These individuals may avoid amusement park rides that drop, climb, spin, or go upside down.

Sensitivities/ Hyper-Reactivity to Taste and Food Textures

Hyper-reactivity to taste and food textures can manifest as difficulty eating foods with mixed textures, or an aversion to one particular texture. They may prefer very bland foods, or dislike anything spicy. Children and adults with autism that struggle with sensitivities to tastes and textures are often labeled as picking, or finicky eaters.

Olfactory (Smell) Sensitivities in Autistic Adults

Sensitivity to smells is quite common in those with Autism Spectrum Disorders. They may become nauseated or gag from certain cooking, cleaning, perfume, or bodily odors. Using public restrooms can be problematic for these individuals. They also may become overstimulated or over aroused in crowded places. They may avoid group settings or crowds—disappearing when guests cover to the house.

Auditory and Visual Processing Hyper-Reactivity

Autistic adults and children can have a tendency to be hyper-sensitive to noises that other people do not seem bothered by like clocks, refrigerators, fans, multiple people talking, blenders, vacuum cleaners, and animals. They can be easy distracted by these auditory or visual stimuli making it difficult to concentrate or attend certain public events due to excessive noise. They may over-react to loud noises like sirens or be unable to sleep if the room isn’t completely dark and quiet. Ear plugs or noise cancelling headphones are often worn in an attempt to drown out some of the excess noise.

Sensory issues are a common concern to autistic adults, and often a cause of significant distress in autistic children. Identifying which senses are being over-stimulated (hyper-reactivity) and avoid situations when the sensory stimuli will be overwhelming can go a long way in helping the autistic individual to navigate their surroundings. Part II of this article will describe symptoms that are present when the autistic individual senses are under-stimulated (hypo-reactivity). See: Symptoms of Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) in Autistic Adults – Part II: Hypo-Reactivity to Sensory Stimuli

Jeannie Davide-Rivera

Jeannie is an award-winning author, the Answers.com Autism Category Expert, contributes to Autism Parenting Magazine, and the Thinking Person's Guide to Autism. She lives in New York with her husband and four sons, on the autism spectrum.