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Autism and Maslow's Hierarchy

Updated on February 15, 2017
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Vince is a technical writer working in the medical research field. He also enjoys exploring literature in his free time.


Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) routinely present with sensory issues such as hypersensitivity to certain sounds. Though the exact nature of these sensory problems is not entirely understood, it is well documented that this hypersensitivity contributes to the barriers to development that people with ASD experience. These barriers are in addition to the already existing barrier of the disorder itself. Children with ASD have trouble learning or engaging in social interactions when they perceive unpleasant sounds from a number of sources which their neurotypical peers either do not hear or are not bothered by. Such sources of sound can be as obvious as a a loud kitchen appliance or can be as seemingly innocuous as the hum of fluorescent lighting (Schaaf, Benevides, Leiby, & Sendecki, 2015).

Feeling Safe

Since people with hypersensitivity to sound often are afraid and feel unsafe, their basic needs on Maslow’s hierarchy are not technically met. They may be safe, but their perception of the situation is one of fear and discomfort. For this reason, they will struggle to move on to higher levels Maslow’s hierarchy. ASD itself acts as a barrier to attaining the higher levels, but even people with high functioning forms of ASD will experience difficulty in development if they are perceiving harmful sounds where others are not.

Feelings of Belonging

The level of love and belonging is difficult for people with severe auditory hypersensitivity to attain as they face barriers to proper socialization and may isolate themselves to avoid unpleasant sounds that often accompany social gatherings and activities. The self esteem needs of people with auditory hypersensitivity may be affected because they realize they are different and can never be like other people. Finally, self actualization is the highest level and the most difficult to attain since it implies someone has not only reached their full potential but has attained a level of comfort in who they are. People with ASD and auditory hypersensitivity may never truly be comfortable with their condition.


One intervention a caregiver can use for patients with auditory sensitivity is assessment of anxiety levels. This would include monitoring for any physiological reactions to stress such as tachycardia, rapid breathing, and high blood pressure. Patients who experience anxiety and stress over a long period of time will begin to exhibit physical symptoms and can even be at risk for serious health problems that go beyond their mental well-being. Since Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is predicated on the notion of addressing physical needs before social and emotional needs, a caregiver performing an assessment on the health effects of chronic anxiety could be creating a stepping stone to moving a patient beyond the levels of physical safety and on to the higher levels. Once those physical needs are addressed, the patient will be free to move on.


Shaaf, R., Benevides T. W., Leiby B. E., Sendecki J. A. (2015). Autonomic dysregulation during sensory stimulation in children with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Autism & Developmental Disorders, 45, 461-472.

© 2017 Vince


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