Although only six letters long, the label 'autism' carries a huge amount of emotional weight. When first suggested or formally diagnosed, it often leads to initial feelings of helplessness, anxiety, guilt, anger or fear in parents. Information is often scarce and practical support minimal. It requires a fundamental reassessment of the expectations of how we imagined our child would develop. It mostly is a process of mourning for the parents, letting go of previously held dreams and having to face up to a very different reality. On this page we attempt to give you a flavour of how your child may be experiencing the world. On purpose we have named this page 'autistic-like behaviour' as it applies to a much wider audience than just those diagnosed with autism. Many people with Autism, Asperger's Syndrome, Global Developmental Delay, Down's Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy and various brain dysfunctions have sensory processing issues in common, which often lead to similar reactions that could be labeled 'autistic-like behaviour'.
- More about Sensory Processing
- Typical Behaviours
- Speech Development
- Social Interactions
- Emotional Reactions
Helping to improve Sensory Processing
Much 'autistic-like behaviour' is linked to how a person processes and reacts to the sensory input they receive through the senses. It is very common to observe sound, visual and tactile sensitivities or sensory overload leading to melt-downs, retraction into their own world or 'unacceptable' behaviour due to frustration.
It is important to understand that we receive huge amounts of information through our senses of vision, hearing, touch, smell, taste and balance. The brain receives about 11 million bits of information each and every second of our waking day. We can only pay attention to around 70 to 80 bits per second, so one of the main functions of the brain is to filter, redirect or delete most information that comes in. Some people are not so good at this and either let too much information through or filter the wrong information out. This can lead to sensory overload and sensitivities, resulting in 'autistic-like behaviour'. Much of this behaviour is simply a reaction to the unrelenting assault of information on the brain. Improve the sensory filtering and processing in the brain and behaviour will change for the better.
One of the ways the brain filters sensory input is by comparing the signals from the right ear and right field of vision, with those from the left ear and left field of vision. The brain uses these two separate and slightly different signals to, for instance, concentrate on a single sound source or limit our visual awareness. By training the brain to make better and faster connections between the two sides, it is possible to improve the filtering of sensory input, reduce sensitivities and boost attention.
Many people get distracted by tight fitting clothes, labels or the feel of certain materials. Others may loose concentration by itches or an uneasiness or restlessness in parts of the body. Some have a strong dislike of being touched lightly, but love the sense of deep pressure when being hugged. Over or under-sensitivity to touch, heat, cold or pain can all contribute to behaviour or reactions that are outside the norm. Although these tactile sensitivities start at skin level, it is the brain that decides if they get through to our awareness or are filtered out. For better learning and development it is important that our brain ignores most information from our skin or internal body parts as that allows us to concentrate on the visual and auditory information being presented to us.
Auditory, or sound, sensitivities are also very common and many children on the autistic spectrum will cover their ears at the sound of a vacuum cleaner, hair dryer or other loud noises. They may also be easily distracted by small sounds that most others would not even hear.
Visual sensitivities may not be as obvious to observe, but visual overload can lead to lying under tables or behind sofas or covering the eyes. It may also be the underlying cause of strong aversion to certain colours, wanting to line up toys, sorting things by colour, or melt-downs in supermarkets that are often visually very busy.
Smell and taste sensitivities can lead to very picky eating habits, the need to separate foods on different plates and not mixing foods together. There often is an overlap with tactile sensitivities with strong preferences or aversions for certain textures, smooth, crunchy, lumpy, soft or spongy. Smelling food, objects or people may also indicate over or under-sensitivities.
Lastly, an under-sensitive sense of balance (vestibular system) can lead to hyperactive behaviour or fidgeting and a lack of concentration. An over-sensitive sense of balance often results in a lack of movement and very cautious behaviour.
Poor sensory processing lies behind all these issues that lead to typical 'autistic-like behaviour'. Strengthening the ability of the brain to filter out unwanted information and combining all the sensory signals into a coherent whole body experience is key to reducing the effects of poor sensory processing.
Some behaviours are labelled as being characteristically autistic, although most are caused by underlying conditions that are common to a range of developmental delays. Hand flapping is one of these and although no conclusive evidence exists for the cause of hand flapping, it may be linked to visual overload. By intensely looking at a self-generated repetitive movement, the amount of visual information requiring processing is dramatically reduced. Also the repetitive physical movement is often perceived as calming, similar to rocking. Lining up toys or carefully sorting them by size or colour falls into the same category, as is looking at spinning washing machines. Making repetitive sounds or teeth grinding fulfils the same function, but this time for the auditory system, drowning out external sounds
These typical behaviours fulfill a useful function for the child, often a reaction to cope with the external environment, or to instill a sense of comfort and safety. In general we advocate to allow the child to behave in this way, but observe what sparked the particular behaviour off and try to imagine what may be going on for the child. Does he or she need some physical comforting or do they require a reduction in sensory input by bringing them to a quieter and visually less stimulation room? By being more observant and trying different interactions, we can learn what best suits the needs of our child and as a result the typical behaviour often will reduce naturally.
Speech is such a key element to a happier and fuller life, that any difficulties experienced in this area will severely limit normal development. Children that fall behind in their speech development or who fail to acquire speech altogether are severely disadvantaged in life and deserve all the help they can get. If there are difficulties with the 'output' (speech), then always check if the 'input' (hearing) functions optimally. Language and speech are learned through listening and if there are difficulties with the hearing system, then this often will affect speech development. A medical hearing test is recommended, but be aware of the limitations of some hearing tests as doctors often only check for severe hearing loss across all frequencies and disregard any distortions or over-sensitivities which can affect speech.
People that listen mainly with their left ear may have slower speech processing and more often than average suffer from stuttering or other speech impediments. The way sounds are processed in the brain also plays a key aspect in the development of speech and re-training the auditory processing centres in the brain can have beneficial effects.
Children that do not start to speak around the age of two or that suddenly regress in their speech, need specialist help to encourage them to start speaking. Although speech is the ultimate aim, this may require a number of preparatory steps prior to progressing to a speech specific programme. Improvements in attention, eye contact and social skills may all help in preparing the child to take the final step towards acquiring speech. Children that very much live 'in their own world' or that have a strong need to control their environment, will also need to be helped in these areas first. A child that has lived without speech for some time often lacks to need to start speaking as it has learned to operate well enough without speech and has all his basic needs met by the parents. In these cases the child needs to be provided with sufficient motivation to try to speak.
Sensory Activation Solutions specialises in programmes that encourage a child to acquire speech. This may involve preparatory work to improve attention, social contact and motivation followed by a programme of specially altered music and language input. Each programme is designed around the needs and abilities of the child and is aimed at helping the child to start speaking.
A lack of appropriate social skills will have a great impact on the well-being and development of any person. Success in life depends on feeling at ease in social situations, being able to make appropriate eye contact, having good listening skills and empathy with others, being able to build rapport and having an awareness of appropriate conversation. Social skills often don't come 'naturally' for people on the autistic spectrum and can also be affected by the emotional state of a person. Improving eye contact and presence and having common and shared experiences with the child are pre-requisites for building stronger social skills. Better language processing often also helps to improve social skills, especially for teenagers or adult clients.
Stress is the feeling of being under too much pressure. A limited amount of pressure can be motivating, help to focus on tasks at hand and improve performance. Too much or too prolonged pressure, however, can lead to stress which can lead to difficulties with concentration, eating and sleeping disorders and emotional and social difficulties.
A person with irrational fears, panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive behaviour or a phobia will feel overwhelmed by emotions and anxiety despite knowing that these feelings are unreasonable. Excessive anxiety and worry about everyday life events for no obvious reasons will also interfere with normal functioning and can impact on study, work and relationships.
All these emotional conditions and the associated behaviour is triggered by other underlying problems the person is experiencing. This can include social interactions, shyness, or imbalances in the processing of sensory information. Through careful observation and detailed questioning of typical behaviour and reactions of the person, it is mostly possible to discover the likely underlying causes. By rectifying the underlying causes it is often possible to change emotional well-being and behaviour, leading to an improvement in self-esteem and confidence.
Faster and more efficient sensory processing, and strengthening of the language and speech centres in the left side of the brain can be achieved in a short space of time through intensive neuro-sensory training. We offer a range of condition-specific courses at SAS Centres, through SAS Practitioners, or as a SAS At Home course. Tailor-made brain training that can make a real difference!