What Does Sensory Autism Mean?

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What does sensory autism mean? A sensory disorder is commonly associated with autism.  However, it is important to know that sensory and autism are not the same thing.  Additionally, sensory autism is not a type of autism.

This article explains more about sensory and autism and in particular, how they overlap.  It is important to understand why sensory links with autism as well as how they are different.

Understand sensory autism by first learning about autism

In health care and medicine, autism is a developmental disorder. A developmental disorder presents itself from early childhood.  Moreover, it presents even in babies. Developmental, in this context, means how a person grows or develops.  In addition, “disorder” means there is a set of problems that cause difficulty in daily life. Therefore, a developmental disorder is one that is present from a young age and causes lifelong difficulties in daily life.

Autism is present from a young age.  However, signs and symptoms may not initially be visual as they emerge as a baby grows. Autism is also life-long and is not something a child ‘grows out of’. Moreover, autism causes difficulties in daily life.  Specifically, one of those difficulties can be with the senses.  Therefore, you often see and hear the words “sensory autism”.

Autism, autistic, neurodiverse

Autism is confusing and there is a lot to learn.  Furthermore, the words that describe autism have changed.  This is because we continue to learn more about autism in health care and medicine every day.  Importantly, autistic people share words that are meaningful in how they describe themselves.  For example, with the word neurodiversity.  People with autism are considered to be neurodiverse.  “Neuro” means brain and “diverse” means different.   So, neurodiverse means different brains.  Moreover, people with autism often describe people who do not have autism or another developmental disorder as neurotypical.

Happy kids at elementary school with their hands raised.

Symptoms of autism cause daily life challenges

Language and communication.

Autism causes difficulties with social communication, social interaction and relating to others.  This includes verbal communication and non-verbal communication with others.  Finally, they may have difficulty understanding and being understood by other people.

You may have seen and heard the term non-verbal autism. For some people with autism, they are non-verbal.  In this instance, it means they do not speak or they speak very little.  However, this does not mean that they do not understand.

On the other hand for some people with autism, their speech is delayed. That does not mean they are non-verbal. However, it means they develop the ability to speak later than other children.

Non-verbal autism.

Non-verbal autism is not a type of autism.  As previously indicated, it simply describes people with autism who do not communicate by speech. But, this does not mean that they do not understand.  People with non-verbal autism may understand everything.  Furthermore, it does not mean they do not communicate as they may use different forms of communication such as sign language.  Other examples include a picture exchange communication system, typing on a keyboard, writing, text-to-speech software or using a special mobile app.

Behaviour and interests.

Autism also causes difficulty with behaviour, interests, and activities. Subsequently, this affects how a person with autism acts, especially how they act with other people. For example, you might see or heard the words autistic behaviour meaning people with autism may behave differently.   Moreover, people with autism may have difficulty with a change in their routine.  For instance, they may engage in certain repetitive tasks.  In addition to this, they may also be preoccupied with certain things or topics.  Finally, they may experience sensory issues which is why you see or hear things about sensory autism.

Symptoms of autism range in severity.  Furthermore, some people with autism have more difficulty with some aspects of daily life than others.  In conclusion, every person with autism is unique.  Just like everyone else.

Diverse group of students walking in school down staircase.

Types of autism

Autism used to be divided into different types. However, autism is now called autism spectrum disorder.  Furthermore, all the types are together.  Autism and autism spectrum disorder are used interchangeably.  “Spectrum” means that there is a range as some people are more affected by autism than others.  Although people with autism have many things in common, each person with autism is unique.

Autism used to be divided into different types:  autistic disorder, Asperger’s disorder, or pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) and childhood disintegrative disorder.  Now, they are grouped together into autism spectrum disorder

Old words used to describe autism.

To help with all of the vocabularies that you might see and hear, these are many of the words used in the past to describe autism:

  • Autistic disorder, autism, childhood autism, early infantile autism, Kanner’s syndrome, infantile psychosis.
  • Asperger’s, Asperger syndrome, Asperger Disorder, High functioning autism
  • Pervasive Developmental Disorder (Not Otherwise Specified) sometimes abbreviated to PDD (NOS) also called atypical autism.
  • Childhood Disintegrative Disorder, also known as Heller’s syndrome, disintegrative psychosis, regressive autism.

Rett’s Disorder.

Is Rett’s Disorder related to autism?  No, it is not.  It was grouped with autism in the past but no longer is.  Therefore, Rett’s Disorder is separate and distinct from autism.

A summary of what you need to know about the types of autism.

  • Autism is now called autism spectrum disorder.
  • Spectrum means that there is a range of difficulties or severity caused by autism.
  • Autism is no longer divided into types.
  • Disorder means that the difficulties caused by autism happen in daily life.
  • Autism has a range of severity.  While some people are more affected by it, in contrast, other people are less affected by it.

Sensory autism is not a type of autism.

There are no longer types of autism.  Furthermore, sensory autism was never one of the types. Autism is a range, called a spectrum disorder. Nonetheless, it is important to know that sensory differences and sensory issues are often part of autism. In fact, the diagnostic criteria for autism include mention of two sensory impairments.  Specifically, hypersensitivity and hyposensitivity. However, not all people with autism have one of these two types of sensory issues.  In addition, sensory issues are more complex than just these two. So, let’s dive into sensory autism.  

Infographic defining hypersensitivity and hyposensitivity.

As with autism, there are many different words to describe sensory.  Furthermore, there are more than five senses.  Those five senses are what you see, hear, taste, touch, and smell. However, you have more than five senses.  The less known sense include your sense of movement (called proprioception), your sense of balance (called your vestibular sense) and your sense of internal organs (called interoception).  Examples of interoception include your sense of hunger, thirst, or the need to go to the bathroom.

Group of students sitting on concrete floor looking at cellphones.

Sensory autism definitions:

Hypersensitive

  • Over-responsive, responds too much to sensory input.  i.e. jerks away from a pat on the back.

Hyposensitive

  • Under-responsive, responds too little to sensory input. i.e. is not aware of bumping into something.

Sensory avoider

  • Avoids sensory input or experiences. i.e. someone who does not like noisy, busy, bright places.

Sensory challenges

  • The brain has difficulty in daily life and does not receive information from the senses well.  Nor does it interpret or respond to the senses well.

Sensory craving.

  • Craves sensory input or experiences and seeks out sensory-rich environments.

Sensory defensive

  • Also called sensory defensiveness.  Avoids certain sensory input and has a negative reaction to some senses or sensory input.

Sensory differences

  • Similar to challenges.  The brain has difficulty in daily life and it does not receive information from the senses well.  Nor does it interpret or respond to the senses well.

Sensory discrimination 

  • The ability to tell the difference between one sense and another, and within one sense.  e.g., know if something is smooth or rough by touch.

Sensory disorder

  • Like sensory processing disorder or sensory integration disorder, the brain has difficulty in daily life.   Sensory processing disorder is often shortened in layman’s terms to sensory disorder.  There are several different types of sensory disorders.  They include sensory modulation, sensory-motor, and sensory discrimination.

Sensory-friendly  

  • Describes a place or event where noise levels are less.  In addition, bright lights are less.  Moreover, a sensory-friendly environment is generally more comfortable, in particular for people with sensory issues.  Also, interchanged with the phrases sensory relaxed and sensory inclusive. 

Key points to remember about sensory autism

  • Sensory autism is not a type of autism.
  • There are no longer types of autism.
  • Autism is a range or spectrum disorder.
  • Hypersensitivity or hyposensitivity may be included.
  • Autism may include a sensory disorder.
  • Sensory disorders include more than hypersensitivity or hyposensitivity.

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