Kids with autism—like my 7-year-old son Liam— are sensitive to all sorts of sensory stimuli. Loud noises, bright lights, uncertain motor situations (stairs, narrow ledges, fine motor tasks), strong smells, crowds, and more can overload their systems and lead to meltdowns, a desire to retreat, stimming to calm themselves, and other behaviors that may seem aberrant and that are often classed as "signs" of autism. These behaviors, however, as adults and teens with autism report, are actually attempts to block or control too much sensory input. As such, neuroscientists are working hard to understand why and how sensory information can disrupt task-completion for a person with autism. A new study out of Bar-Ilan University studied the connection between autism and the ability to perform tasks when faced with sensory stimuli.
In this study, adolescent volunteers sat in chairs that could move in several directions, donned 3-D glasses, and then they were immersed in a "trip" through a field of virtual stars. Their task was simple: indicate which direction the stars were moving—but this is a task many people with autism struggle with when the visual field is interrupted by "noise" (in this study's case, randomly placed dots). Before the "noise" was added the study's authors noted that participants with autism "performed well, successfully determining the direction of movement at a level similar to that achieved by the non-ASD control group. When the noisy signals were introduced, however, the ASD group was significantly more affected than controls." The study also demonstrated that the teens with autism were successfully integrating visual and motion (vestibular) input, which challenges theories that people with autism have a hard time integrating multiple senses and having them work together.
The study's authors' call for more research into the how the brains of people with autism work, and I think there are several takeaways here for those of us helping children with autism navigate the world:
1) Our kids can perform tasks, often at the same level as their peers.
2) Their sensory systems are different than ours—not broken, but different—and often their behavior reflects this difference.
3) "Noise"—or any distracting sensory stimuli from random dots, to loud noises, to changes in routine, to hundreds of others—can seriously overwhelm our kids and make them less successful at given tasks.
4) Our role as parents is twofold: honor this sensory difference and find ways to help our kids reduce the painful or distracting "noise" in their lives.
Those are some tall orders, I know, but they're good reminders, and ones I need right now, especially. We're moving soon, and I can tell Liam is sensitive to the changes in our house. Recently, during one of his therapy sessions, he got really upset. While his therapist asked him to work on a simple task (complete a 6-piece puzzle) that he's done hundreds of times before, Liam started screaming. Over and over, he let off increasingly higher pitched shrieks while his therapist kept prompting him to finish the puzzle and reminding him, "no screaming." It was a lot of "noise" added to the already loud environment of our topsy-turvy home.
After a minute or so, I had to intervene. Not because the therapist was doing anything wrong and not because I think Liam should get out tasks by fussing—but because I could tell Liam was way, way over stimulated and that wasn't good for anyone. I led him away from the task and into a quieter room, spoke calmly to him while getting him some water, and generally turned the volume down in our home. We ended the therapy session a bit early and Liam and I headed to the kitchen to make dinner. Less than a minute after quieting the environment, Liam stopped screaming and helped me fill a pot with water, get the noodles ready, and prep for dinner.
Image "Cute Autistic Boy with Headphones" via Shutterstock