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The Sensory Integration Toolbox: 15 Life-Changing Tips to Support People on the Spectrum

Updated on August 20, 2016
tdalexander profile image

Toni helps autistic teens and adults reach their employment and relationship goals. She is the author of the book Autism Translated.

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This is "Part 3- General Sensory Tips" of the Sensory Integration & Autism series.

Part 1 focuses on what sensory dysfunction is and how it affects all aspects of life.

Part 2 highlights the personal experiences of autistic individuals who cope with sensory overload.

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General Sensory Screening

Answer each question below about the person you suspect has hyper/hypo-sensitivity. Scores can range from 0% to 100%. The closer to 100%, the greater number of sensory challenges to address.

Don't forget that some people may experience many mild symptoms while others may experience only one or two very severe or painful symptoms that severely impact their ability to function.

Toolbox Instructions:

How to get the Most Out of this Article

These 15 tips focus on addressing several of the underlying conditions that can contribute to the uncomfortable and painful aspects of hyper-sensitivity. Addressing these core issues can make a tremendous difference in a person's ability to function- to connect with others and to feel healthy & happy. In other words, it's worth the time and effort involved.

If you suspect that sensory processing difficulties are affecting you or someone you know but aren't sure to what extent-

Your first step is to take the general sensory screening located in the blue box to the right. Once you have answered each of these questions, you will received an individualized score. There is no right or wrong answer and no right or wrong score either but the higher the score, the greater the likelihood that hyper and/or hypo-sensitivity could be creating some real challenges.

Step 2 is to read each of the 14 tips and decide which of these are useful in your specific circumstance.

Step 3 Do it. Follow through on the tips you have chosen.

If you already know that you or someone you care about has particular sensory challenges-you can skip the quiz and go straight to specific recommendations for General Sensory Issues and follow these recommendations.

Stay tuned for upcoming links to tips and screenings for each of the following sensory areas as well:

Visual Sensitivity / Touch Sensitivity / Sound Sensitivity

Smell Sensitivity / Taste Sensitivity / Common Sensory Behaviors

Seizure Screening

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Fifteen Tips to Cope with Hyper and Hypo Sensitivity:

Tip #1: Acknowledge that hyper and hypo-sensitivity are real. Believe what we say about our experiences as well as the modifications we need to help us cope more effectively in the Neurotypical (non-autistic) world.

Tip #2: If someone is having difficulty socializing and communicating, ask yourself and them- what sensory issues might be affecting their ability to interact?

Tip #3: Help us access treatment for seizures when needed. This can be a real challenge because some kinds of seizures are extremely difficult to detect. They can go unnoticed for years. Some of us have made several trips to the neurologist before our seizures finally showed up on an EEG (machine used to detect epilepsy).

If you can answer yes to any of the questions in the seizure screening tool the right about someone you know, it might make sense to encourage them to see a neurologist to determine if seizures are having an impact on their ability to live to their full potential.

Gastro-intestinal Screening

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Tip #4: Help us get treatment for gastro-intestinal (stomach and bowel) issues if needed. If you can answer yes to any of the Gastro-intestinal screening questions to the right about someone you care about, then they may benefit from a visit to a GI specialist.

While most doctors now recognize that GI issues are a real problem, there are still some who dismiss these problems as an "autism myth". Be sure to choose a doctor who specializes in or at least has an awareness of autism to assure that issues are found and treated effectively.

Gluten and casein free foods can be very beneficial for some people with sensory integration disorder.  Non-wheat and non-dairy alternatives are available in health food stores or can be cooked from scratch at home.
Gluten and casein free foods can be very beneficial for some people with sensory integration disorder. Non-wheat and non-dairy alternatives are available in health food stores or can be cooked from scratch at home. | Source

Tip # 5: Determine any food sensitivities and eliminate exposure to these items. Common culprits include: casein (milk protein) and gluten (wheat protein). A gluten and casein free diet can be difficult to implement because it involves a life-style change, but there are on-line and local support networks to help those families who choose this option. Some people report very positive results that make it well worth the effort. If you notice- unexplained changes in weight, irritability, unexplained changes in mood, eczema, achy joints, headaches, "foggy thinking" and or gastro-intestinal problems a food sensitivity could be the culprit.

Tip #6: Help us visit a doctor who can rule out any other medical conditions including: possible ear infections, dental infections and nutritional deficiencies.

Tip #7: Have an Occupational Therapy Evaluation completed by an occupational therapist (OT) and follow their recommendations. It is important for parents, teachers and advocates of students to recognize that not all occupational therapy addresses sensory integration. Much of the work OT's do in school has to do with functional skills such as how to hold a pencil or zip up a jacket. If you think that a student's ability to learn in the classroom is affected by sensory challenges then they need to be evaluated by someone trained and certified in sensory integration.

Anxiety Screening

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Tip #8: Help us get support and treatment for our anxiety when necessary. If someone is lining up objects, repeating the same behavior over and over, or obsessing about a particular topic, this can be a sign of untreated anxiety. Find a therapist who has experience treating anxiety in people with autism spectrum disorders and focus on developing healthy coping skills & thought patterns. When we have less anxiety, our bodies often feel less pain from over-sensitivity.

Don't forget that stimulant medications used to treat inattention have been known to increase symptoms of anxiety and agitation for some of us on the spectrum.

Medications can be customized into flavored  liquids and even topical gels for those individuals who have difficulty swallowing pills.
Medications can be customized into flavored liquids and even topical gels for those individuals who have difficulty swallowing pills. | Source

Tip #9: Compounding pharmacies can tailor medications to meet the specific needs of individuals. They can address the following problems encountered by individuals on the spectrum:

  • The need for a very low dosage strength for those who are hyper-sensitive to medications 1.
  • The need for a different formulation, such as turning a pill into a liquid or transdermal-gel for people who can't swallow pills.
  • The need for an allergen-free medication, such as one without gluten or colored dyes.
  • The need for a medication that has been discontinued because of low profit.

Animals can have a profound effect on the ability to process touch.
Animals can have a profound effect on the ability to process touch. | Source

Tip #10: Encourage and support regular, planned physical activities such as walking, swimming, yoga or riding a bike.

Tip #11: Do not force a person to eliminate harmless sensory behaviors such as rocking or posturing fingers. These behaviors typically help to calm or ease anxiety and help us focus more effectively. If a sensory behavior will cause significant problems such as the compulsion to grab one’s crotch when nervous or happy, then work towards shaping the behavior into a more acceptable action such as grabbing the lining of a pant pocket or clapping hands together. Some of us who have the urge to posture our fingers carry a rock in our pocket or wear a piece of jewelry to rub instead. This draws less unwanted attention from people when we are in public.

Tip #12: Provide squeeze balls, “wiggle seats” and or rocking chairs to promote socially acceptable forms of movement in structured environments such as classrooms.

Tip #13: Doodling on a paper, rocking or fidgeting with a pen or squeeze toy while listening to lectures or having conversations may improve concentration. Do not discourage students or employees from doing any of these activities if it helps them to focus.

Tip #14: Encourage regular contact with animals for those of us who like them. Animals may decrease our anxiety and hyperactivity, and make physical contact such as hugs and handshakes easier. Some of us notice an increase in self-esteem as well as feelings of connectedness and improved communication skills when we spend time with animals. Many individuals on the autism spectrum actually discover we “have a knack” with a particular animal or experience a level of understanding that we have not had with other humans.

Tip #15: Create a “quiet refuge” at home for those of us who do not live alone. This could be an entire room or even just a closet that is quiet and comfortable as long as it is designed to meet the needs of the person utilizing it.

Getting Life-Changing Results:

Many of these tips require a long-term commitment and significant life-style changes. Set reasonable goals and expectations for yourself and recognize that these changes are a process that will take time. Many parents, spouses and teachers express feeling of guilt for not having realized something like seizures or gastro-intestinal issues created significant challenges for someone they care about. Our advice about this is simple. "Just don't feel guilty". It doesn't help you and it doesn't help us. What does help is more people knowing what it means to be hyper and hypo-sensitive. Knowledge creates understanding and understanding creates effective solutions.

The tips in this article come from the personal experiences of individuals who want to share their stories and what has worked for them. No information in this article should be construed as medical advice or as an alternative to medical advice from your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider. Please consult with your qualified health care provider(s) before implementing new therapies, exercise plans, diets or interventions. Please consult with your qualified health care provider(s) if you have specific questions about any medical matters. If you think you may have a medical condition you should seek appropriate medical attention. You should not delay seeking medical advice, disregard medical advice or discontinue medical treatment because of information in this article.


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    • tdalexander profile imageAUTHOR

      Toni Boucher 

      15 months ago

      Yes, fashionwithfitness, gluten is one problem some people can have with bread and I have seen some very drastic improvements in people who removed gluten. Bread can cause other problems for some people. There is research for example about a person's ability to regulate sugar being negatively impacted by wheat.

    • profile image

      fashionwithfitness 

      15 months ago

      Lovely, It's an interesting article. Can I ask the gluten really injurious while many says Bread also include gluten?

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