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Tactile Defensiveness and the Autism Spectrum

  • Published: 2014-01-30 (Revised/Updated 2016-03-30) : Author: Thomas C Weiss : Contact: Disabled World
  • Synopsis: Article examines tactile defensiveness, repetitive behaviors, obsessions, as well as routines regarding children with autism.

Main Document

"The interests of a child with autism are restricted and at times compulsive. They usually are fixated on certain activities, toys, or characters - even if others are available to them."

Autism is a form of disability that affects people in different ways. Each child diagnosed with autism is different in regards to their symptoms, abilities, and the daily challenges they face. The main symptoms of autism and tactile-defensiveness are repetitive behaviors, obsessions, as well as routines that must be dealt with on a daily basis.

Having a child with autism is difficult for families in the beginning. There is a learning curve related to autism that results in a better understanding of a child with autism and the autism spectrum, as well as repetitive behaviors. Children with autism have unique facial movements, or mannerisms that might seem unusual to others. These may include:

Preoccupation with an object or parts of it is also a part of their repetitive behaviors. A texture, or a noise they find to be interesting such as birds chirping, fixates their senses. Some children with autism are truly preoccupied with these behaviors, making it difficult to find other interests.

Chart showing autism mannerisms
About This Image: Chart showing autism mannerisms
The interests of a child with autism are restricted and at times compulsive. They usually are fixated on certain activities, toys, or characters - even if others are available to them. Preschoolers will fixate on Thomas the Tank for example, building train tracks, or videos. If the toy is lost or removed, the child becomes upset. Older, verbal Asperger's spectrum children may have fascinations with a specific subject or things such as a video game or a computer.

Resisting Change to Routine

The world is confusing to the autistic child with everything happening around them. It is filled with sights, sounds, events, and places. The boundaries are not clear, yet children with autism have to learn to adapt. They must find routine, order, routes and times. Having rituals with the same pattern will reduce fear of change and present less chaotic episodes.

Changes to a child with autism's physical environment and what is familiar to them might become too much for them to endure. The presence or absence of a family member, rearranging furniture or their room, changing bed or mealtimes, or changing the child's classrooms all affect children with autism and their level of tactile-defensiveness. Even changes such as holiday events or birthdays might cause unexpected stress and changes to a child with autism.

A child with autism needs a structured environment to help them cope with boredom and anxiety. Having computer time during lunchtime may be more appropriate for a child with autism because it has the potential to reduce stress during that time of day and calm them down. When they become stressed or bored, find calming activities for them to pursue to decrease their level of anxiety. Find things that impact their sensory issues and attempt to reduce them in the environment. An example might be noises or soaps that annoy them. Decreasing noise and smells may help them to cope better in their environment.

Research has shown that obsessions and routines prove to be coping mechanisms for autism and tactile-defensiveness. The changes help children with Asperger's deal with stress and anxiety. Finding activities or outlets to let go of stress and anxiety will help them to better manage their life and potentially reduce some of these behaviors. Changes are unavoidable of course, yet if they are made slowly it seems to work best for children with autism. If the child's behaviors become dangerous to other people, seek assistance from a child guidance counselor.

Chart showing sensory systems affected by Aspergers syndrome
About This Image: Chart showing sensory systems affected by Aspergers syndrome
Children with Asperger's and Sensory Issues

Children with Asperger's syndrome might experience issues with processing information from one or more sensory systems. These sensory systems include:

The processes occur at an unconscious level and work together to help learning and attention. Each of these systems has specific receptors that pick up information that is relayed to the brain. The sensory characteristics of children with Asperger's may be responsible for a number of their negative behaviors and unpleasant emotional experiences. Reactions to sensory stimuli for averagely developing children often times become stress responses for children with Asperger's.

Sensory System Impact and Children with Asperger's Syndrome

The sensory system of children with Asperger's syndrome can be impacted by a number of things. The results vary and they may react in different ways. The following is a description of the sensory systems impacted in children with Asperger's syndrome.

Hearing: While they have hearing abilities that are intact, children with Asperger's syndrome might not efficiently or accurately interpret auditory information. They may be hyper or hypo-sensitive to noise and respond negatively to small or loud noises and fail to respond when their name is called.

Taste and Smell: Issues related to the taste system manifest themselves in avoiding specific foods, eating a specific diet, or being very picky about foods. Closely related to the sense of smell, the olfactory system in the nose is most often characterized by a hypersensitivity to a number of the smells that other people enjoy, or do not even notice.

Balance: The vestibular system is stimulated by movement and changes in head position. Children with vestibular hypersensitivities experience low tolerance for movement and exhibit difficulties with changing direction and speed. They might experience nausea from spinning and have trouble with sitting still. Others might display gravitational insecurity. Some may seek out vestibular input by rocking or crashing into things, may be considered clumsy, or experience difficulties with, 'switching gears.'

Sight: In comparison to other sensory areas, the visual system seems to be a relative strength for children with Asperger's syndrome. The issues that do arise are often times related to hypersensitivities to light, poor hand-eye coordination, depth perception, as well as hypo-sensitivities that make finding and object in plain sight exceptionally hard. Some children may have 20/20 vision, but still experience difficulties with visual tracking and convergence. These issues may be detected by an exam with a behavioral ophthalmologist or optometrist.

Touch: A person's tactile system provides information about objects in the environment. Tactile-defensiveness may involve physical discomfort when coming in contact with a person or something that others might not register. Taking a bath, standing in line, touch that is either too heavy or light, unexpected touch and using a glue stick all present potentially stressful situations for people who are tactilely defensive. In contrast, children who are hypo-sensitive fail to respond to the touch of other people, yet often times use touch to explore the environment for the tactile input they desire.

Movement: The, 'proprioceptive,' system makes carrying several objects such as a backpack, musical instruments, and books down a hallway filled with others possible by providing information about the location and movement of a body part. For some people, these movements do not happen naturally. Issues in the proprioception system may result in a lack of coordination, poor posture, as well as chronic fatigue related to physical activities. Some children do not receive accurate information from their bodies concerning how soft or hard they are pushing or hitting something. The result may be using too much or too little force when kicking a ball or tagging another person.

Similar Topics

1 : Autism's Social Deficits Reversed by Romidepsin Anti-Cancer Drug : University at Buffalo.
2 : Urine and Blood Tests Can Indicate Autism in Children : University of Warwick.
3 : Reduced Attention to Audiovisual Synchrony in Infancy May Predict Autism Diagnosis : Uppsala University.
4 : Slight Fluctuations in Movement Correspond to Autism Diagnoses : Indiana University.
5 : The Multiple Mutations of Autism : University of Washington Health Sciences/UW Medicine.
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