Thursday 5 April 2018

Navigating Sensory Aversions

Sensory aversions are an extremely tricky facet of Autism to both navigate and explain to others. Both O and L are sensory seekers and sensory avoiders depending on the sensory input. And they can be both sensory seekers and avoiders at the same time for a single sensory input.

A sensory aversion, or sensory processing difficulties as they are more commonly known as, is often first recognised by parents during a child's toddler years when the child has an unusual aversion to noise or bright lights or clothing that is too tight or irritating or to another sensory input.

Sensory aversions have been described to us by our pediatrician and by the little superheroes occupational therapists as if O and L's skin is literally crawling when they feel, taste, hear or see a particular sensory input. The reason for this is that the taste, texture or sound of the sensory input is processed in their brain as being extremely dis-pleasurable in a skin-crawling-type-of-feeling.

Individuals who have sensory aversions to particular sensory inputs will quite often become anxious, irritable or fearful when they come into contact with said input, hence entering into a state of meltdown or needing to physically run away from the input. They're often mistakenly called fussy eaters or are told that they are over sensitive to particular sensory inputs. And if they do need to run away from the input they can be labelled as impulsive.

With O we didn't really notice any sensory aversions until she was much older but as a toddler she was a definite sensory seeker. As she has grown older we've noticed that she has aversions to loud noises. O also has aversions to particular smells, especially with different foods, either raw or when they at being cooked. We've had to trial different types of hair brushes to find one that she will tolerate.

L on the other hand from a very young age has always had aversions to various sensory inputs. He never liked anyone, including us, touching his head or even his hair. Brushing the knots out of his curls was a nightmare. Finding a hair dresser that L would allow to touch his hair, let alone cut it, was a very long process.

L has always disliked loud noisy busy places. He is becoming much better in being able to tolerate these places, but this has taken a lot of work on his and our behalf.

L didn't like to be held or cuddled for long as a baby and yet he constantly craved physical touch from us.

L has never liked wearing clothes. If he had his way he would run around naked every day of the year, even in the dead of winter. And if there are internal pockets, tags or cord on the clothing, then he will not stay in the clothing for very long. It took us over a year of constant encouragement to get L to wear shoes to school. At home and when we're out and about, he will still often go barefoot.

Now imagine trying to navigate sensory aversions when you do not have the verbal language skills to communicate what the issue is.

There were many a times prior to L's speech developing that we would be tearing our hair trying to figure out what was going on that was causing our little boy to explode. It was a case of working through and eliminating one issue at a time until we'd figured out the cause of his distress.

And trying to explain to outsiders that yes O and L don't like loud noises but they will be fine at a school disco without their block out ear protectors, well, we get some very odd looks.

Both O and L dislike loud noises - they will often wear block out ear protectors to block out the over whelming noise so that they can concentrate. And yet they both love loud music!

L loves to play with dirt, mud, paint and he also loves to eat with his hands. And yet he will become quite distressed with the feeling of what ever is on his hands once he has finished the activity!

Recently O was given a make-your-own slime kit for her birthday and a few weekends ago, O and L wanted to make their own slime.

I was prepared for L to have a meltdown but low and behold he loved it and didn't become one bit anxious when the slime stuck to his hands.

Depending on which child I asked, the slime either felt like unicorn snot or unicorn poop! In their defence, it was very sparkly!

But neither of the little superheroes complained about how sticky the slime was and they've both asked to play with it again.

So how do you navigate sensory aversions when you may or may not be aware of the underlying issue?

One of the first things that you need to do is work out what your child's triggers are. This can be time consuming and energy draining but it is well worth it in the end. To figure out what a trigger may be we will often remove one source at a time until we come to the conclusion about the issue. At times we will actively avoid known triggers but on the off chance that we're not able to avoid the trigger, we take a sensory tool kit with us - block out ear protectors and the tablet are a must!

You do need to be patient and understanding as well give your child plenty of reassurance and encouragement. I will never feel, see and hear the way that my little superheroes do but when they are able to tackle and overcome a sensory obstacle that has held them back, we celebrate. And when they are distressed, all I can do is be there for them.

We also ensure that both of the little superheroes are able to take sensory breaks at school, at home and when we're on outings to keep them focused on the task or activity at hand. Sensory breaks are also known as sensory diets.

The term "sensory diet" is thought to have been coined by an innovative occupational therapist named Patricia Wilbarger in 1984. We all need a balanced amount of sensory input in our bodies every day to allow us to work well. We may exercise, drink coffee, listen to music or retreat to a quiet place when the environment around us becomes overwhelming. Some individuals may need more or less sensory input than others.

A sensory diet is often a specialised sensory input activity plan that is carefully designed and personalised to provide a child or adult with the input that they need to stay focused throughout the day. They're often created for children who are on the spectrum or for those with Sensory Processing Difficulties. I've since learnt that individuals with dementia and Alzheimer's can also benefit from a sensory diet!

There is no easy fix to sensory aversions, you simply need to be patient and understanding of the individuals distress. And remember, they're not misbehaving, they're simply struggling in that moment with the sensory input.


  1. These are great tips for helping to support your child through aversions. We all need to be aware of our children's feelings in situations, and understand that we can adjust our behaviors to match. Thank you for sharing!

  2. My middle child went through this as well. It took some time and repeat exposure. We also did brushing and joint compressions. Those seemed to help very well, alongside the touching activities. All the best to you guys. You will see progress as they grow.

  3. Wow! I didn't know most of this. Sensory aversions is such a complicated, fascinating topic. I'm glad your kids are doing well and learning to navigate through this challenge. :)

  4. Every child is an individual with different abilities and needs. You are doing a great job helping your babies!

  5. I'm so glad you have shared this. I know there are so many mothers out there going through similar things with their kids and need guidance on what to do.

  6. HaHa love the unicorn snot or poop! Neither of boys have sensory Aversions or processing difficulties but they too won't wear clothes unless they have too :) x

  7. Wow! I've never heard of the sensory diet, but it sounds like the perfect sensory plan for the day.


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