Research shows that most autistic kids also have sensory issues. Some theories even claim that sensory overload causes little kiddos to ‘shutdown’ and miss out on developing social and communication skills.
Whether sensory issues are the root cause of some ASD conditions or simply tend to overlap, it often feels unfair that on top of having to deal with social and communication difficulties, autistic kids have to also deal with sensory challenges.
Can this co-morbidity be an advantage? Can we leverage the sensitive nature of autistic kids to improve their social and communication skills?
We all notice changes. We actually overrate changes relative to absolute values. Nobel winning researchers Kahneman and Tverksy and others have written about this effect. Intuitively we can all relate to this when we place our hands in hot water, and after a while we move them to warm water that feels much colder than actually is in this context.
Hyper sensitive kids tend to sense even slight changes. Most people might not notice certain change in sound or noise level or certain smell or clothing texture, where hyper sensitive kids are thrown out of their comfort zone. In a way, according to Kahneman and Tverksy, we are all hyper sensitive to change, after we get used to a certain condition or state.
What if there was a way to turn this hyper sensitivity into and advantage? What if instead of sensing change in water temperature we could get kids to sense change in human interactions? And what if we could leverage this change to improve referencing? attention? eye contact?
The starting point can be doing something together, almost anything. it doesn’t have to be social or communicative to begin with. It can be carrying something together, playing pull on a rope, hugging or even simply holding hands. Even a repetitive action can be leveraged if you can get in there and do it together, in the same rhythm. It just needs to have some element of joint sensing, something that you both share like a touch, rhythm, resistance of an object, perhaps even sound.
The important thing is to maintain this state for a while, until it starts to feel comfortable for both. Keep it steady. Think about the hot water example — when you immerse your hand in hot water, you need to keep it in there for a little while until your hand gets used to the temperature. Only then would a shift to warm water feel much colder than it actually is.
Once you are there, and you feel both you and the child are relaxed within this activity or joint state, you can make a slight change. It can be applying slightly more pressure on the touch point (e.g. hand holding), slight change in rhythm, or even a sudden stop.
This change will register more with hyper sensitive kids acting as a wake up call. It will help grab their attention away from the task and towards the change. And because the change will have occurred in the joint sensing point, it can be leveraged to generate referencing. Just imagine you are cycling together (see illustration) in the same pace for a couple of minutes and all of the sudden you stop. Most likely your child will look at you to find the source of change. At which point you can ‘spotlight’ this joint eye contact moment!, and keep going.
It may take some trial and error to figure out what joint activity and what degree (or dimension) of change best works for your child, but when you get there it can be a very effective, and rewarding.
Wouldn’t it be nice that instead of having your child’s sensory issue push him/her away from companion, that it can actually be the trigger for company? So that instead of having to ‘walk around’ the sensory issue as a handicap, we can look at it as a trait. A trait that in the right context can become a strength that helps overcome other weaknesses.
We still don’t know what causes autism. Perhaps its somehow related to sensory issues. But we do know that we can leverage our human hyper sensitivity to change (regardless of whether or not we are ‘hyper sensitive’…) and use it to teach and improve interpersonal skills.
Oren Steinberg, parent and co-founder of SensoryTreat.