What Does Sensory Autism Mean?
Do you wonder why sensory and autism are often mentioned together? While a sensory disorder is commonly associated with autism, it is important to know that sensory and autism are not the same thing. In addition, sensory autism is not a type of autism.
In this article, I’ll explain more about sensory and autism, and how they overlap. It is important to understand how sensory and autism are linked but also how they are different.
If you feel you understand autism, you might want to skip ahead to the section “Sensory autism is not a type of autism.”
In health care and medicine, autism is a classified as a developmental disorder. A developmental disorder is one that is present from early childhood or even infancy. Developmental, is this context, means how a person grows or develops. 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 day-to-day living.
Autism is present from a young age, although signs and symptoms may only become more visible as a child grows older. Autism is also life-long; it is not something a child ‘grows out of’. Finally, autism causes difficulties in daily life. Moreover, one of those difficulties can be with the senses, hence you see and hear the words sensory autism. I will explain a little more about that later.
Understanding autism can be very confusing. There is a lot to learn and understand. Furthermore, the words used to describe autism have changed recently as we learn more about autism in health and medicine. Understanding autism and the words used to describe it is also changing as people with autism share the words that are meaningful to them to describe themselves, like using the term neurodiversity for example. Moreover, people with autism often describe people who do not have autism or another developmental disorder as being neurotypical.
Symptoms of Autism Cause Difficulty in Daily Life
Autism causes difficulties with social communication and social interaction. Social means relating to other people. People with autism may have difficulty relating to other people, communicating verbally and non-verbally with other people. 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, meaning they do not speak or they speak very, very little. For some people with autism, their speech is delayed. That does not mean they are non-verbal. It just means they develop the ability to speak later than other children. Non-verbal autism is not a type of autism; it describes people with autism who do not communicate by speaking. That does not mean they do not understand, it fact people with non-verbal autism may understand everything. It also does not mean they do not communicate; they may use a different way of communicating like sign language, a picture-exchange system, typing, writing or use a text-to-speech application or device.
Autism also causes difficulty with behavior, interests and activities. This affects how a person with autism acts, especially how they act with other people. You might see or hear the words autistic behavior. Meaning people with autism may behave differently in everyday life than what you might expect is common. For example, people with autism may have difficulty with a change in routine. They may repeat things or repeat tasks, or they may be pre-occupied with certain things or topics and finally they may have sensory issues. The latter is why you see or hear things about sensory autism.
Symptoms of autism also have a range in severity. Some people with autism have more difficulty with some aspects of daily life and some people have less difficulty. Every person with autism is as unique as everyone else in the world.
Types of Autism
Did you know that autism was formerly divided into different types of autism? That may be confusing because now autism is called autism spectrum disorder, where all types are grouped together. Autism and autism spectrum disorder are also used interchangeably. Spectrum means that there is a range. Again, some people are more affected by autism and some people are less affected by autism. Although people with autism have many things in common, just like everyone else, each person 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 are now all grouped together into autism spectrum disorder. To help with all of the vocabulary that you might see and hear, these are many of the words used in the past to describe autism:
- Autistic, 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.
You might also have heard about Rett’s Disorder in relation to autism. It used to be grouped together under autism, it no longer is. Rett’s Disorder is separate and distinct from autism.
To Summarize: What You Need to Know About the Types of Autism
- Autism is no longer divided into types.
- Autism is now called autism spectrum disorder.
- Spectrum means that there is a range of difficulties or severity caused by autism.
- Disorder means that the difficulties caused by autism happen in daily life.
- Autism has a range of severity; some people are more affected by it, other people are less affected by it.
Sensory Autism is Not a Type of Autism
There are no longer types of autism and sensory autism was never one of the types. Autism is a range, called a spectrum disorder. Nonetheless, it is important to know that some of the difficulties caused by the autism can be sensory. In fact, two specific types of sensory impairments have been added to the criteria used to diagnose autism; 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. Let’s dive deeper into sensory autism as there is a lot to share.
As with autism, there are many different words used to describe sensory, and that can be confusing. There are more than five senses that most people commonly name. Those five senses are what you see, hear, taste, touch and smell. However, you also have a sense of movement (called proprioception) and sense of balance (call your vestibular sense) and finally an eighth sense called interoception. Interoception is your sense of internal organs and being hungry, thirsty, breathing or having to go to the bathroom.
Here are some more phrases that start with the words sensory autism. You might hear and see them used when sensory and autism are discussed, it is helpful to know what they mean.
Sensory Autism Definitions
- Hypersensitive: Over-responsive, responding too much to sensory input. i.e. jerking away from a pat on the back.
- Hyposensitive: Under-responsive, responding too little to sensory input. i.e. is not aware of bumping into something.
- Sensory avoider: Someone who 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 with receiving information from the senses, interpreting it and responding to it.
- Sensory craving: Craves sensory input or experiences. Seeks out sensory rich environments.
- Sensory defensive: Also called sensory defensiveness. Avoids certain sensory input. Has a negative reaction to some senses or sensory input.
- Sensory differences: The brain has difficulty in daily life with receiving information from the senses, interpreting it and responding to it compared to other people.
- Sensory discrimination: The ability to tell the difference between one sense and another, and within one sense. g. knowing if something is smooth or rough by touching it.
- Sensory disorder: Like sensory processing disorder or sensory integration disorder, the brain has difficulty in daily life with receiving information from the senses, interpreting it and responding to it. Sensory processing disorder is often shortened in layman’s terms to sensory disorder. There are several different types of sensory disorder including sensory modulation, sensory-motor and sensory discrimination.
- Sensory- friendly: Often used to describe a place or event where noise levels are less, bright lights are less, and the environment is generally more comfortable for people with sensory issues. Also used interchangeably with the phrases sensory relaxed and sensory inclusive.
- Sensory impairment: This is used interchangeably with sensory different, sensory challenge, sensory issue, sensory disorder, the brain has difficulty in daily life with receiving information from the senses, interpreting it and responding to it compared to other people.
- Sensory-friendly providers: Occupational Therapist and Sensory Friendly Solutions founder Christel Seeberger coined the term sensory friendly providers to describe people who are providing sensory-friendly events, places, products and services around the world.
- Sensory-friendly seekers: Occupational Therapist and Sensory Friendly Solutions founder, Christel Seeberger, coined the term sensory friendly seekers to describe people who are looking for sensory-friendly events, places, products and services.
- Sensory input: Information received through the senses, what you see, hear, taste, smell, and touch along with knowing where your body and head are in space and your internal sense of your organs like if you are hungry, thirsty or need to go to the bathroom.
- Sensory integration (also abbreviated to SI): The process of the brain receiving, organizing and responding to information from the senses.
- Sensory integration disorder (also abbreviated to SID): When a person’s brain has a problem with receiving, organizing or responding to information from the senses.
- Sensory issues: The brain has difficulty in daily life with receiving information from the senses, interpreting it and responding to it.
- Sensory modulation: The ability to organize and regulate sensory information. Make “sense” so to speak of the information coming in from the senses and respond to it appropriately. So if you hear a loud noise you turn to see where it came from if you do not recognize it.
- Sensory motor: Also called sensorimotor. How the information coming in from the senses results in a motor response. g. using more muscle effort when you go to pick something up and realize it is heavier than you thought.
- Sensory overload: The senses are overloaded or overwhelmed. There is too much information coming into the brain from one sensor or many senses for the person to handle. g. when a room feels to noisy and you feel like you have to leave
- Sensory preference(s): Refers to what senses or sensory information a person prefers or likes. Some people like spicy food, other people do not, that is a sensory preference in taste.
- Sensory processing: Often used interchangeable with sensory integration. The process of the brain receiving, organizing and responding to information from the senses.
- Sensory processing disorder (also abbreviated to SPD): When a person’s brain has a problem with receiving, organizing or responding to information from the senses.
- Sensory relaxed: Often used to describe a place or event where noise levels are less, bright lights are less, and the environment is designed to be more comfortable for people with sensory issues. Used interchangeable with sensory-friendly and sensory inclusive.
Learn more about sensory and autism.
Key Points to Remember About Sensory and Autism
- Sensory autism is not a type of autism.
- There are no longer types of autism.
- Autism is a range or spectrum disorder.
- Autism may include hypersensitivity or hyposensitivity.
- Autism may include other sensory disorders.
- Sensory disorder includes more than hypersensitivity or hyposensitive.
Christel Seeberger worked as an occupational therapist for more than 25 years helping people with sensory sensitivity who experience sensory overload. Christel has sensory sensitivity herself; she has hearing loss and wears hearing aids. She founded Sensory Friendly Solutions in 2016 to bring together the sensory friendly community around the world to help people who are interested in sensory friendly living and businesses who offer sensory friendly experiences.