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People with autism can find it difficult to process everyday sensory information. This is especially true if they have hypersensitivity. Find out more about what hypersensitivity is, how it affects those with autism and what you can do to support them.
What is hypersensitivity?
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Hypersensitivity is when the senses of an autistic individual are heightened to the extent of sensory input being uncomfortable for them. All five senses – sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell – can be affected by hypersensitivity.
Below are some examples of how hypersensitivity can affect the senses:
- Hyper-hearing (also known as hyperacusis) is when sudden, unpredictable sounds, such as a telephone ringing, can frighten someone.
- Hyper-vision is when someone’s vision is too acute. They may dislike bright lights and avoid eye contact.
- Olfactory hypersensitivity is when people cannot tolerate certain smells or tastes and may insist on wearing the same clothes all the time.
- Hyper-tactile hypersensitivity is when people cannot stand touch, such as when another person tries to hug them.
What kind of hypersensitivities do people with autism experience?
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In addition to the above examples of how hypersensitivity affects all five senses, people with autism can also experience the following kinds of hypersensitivities:
- Distorted vision
- Fragmented images
- Focusing on one detail of the object rather than the whole object
- Trouble sleeping due to sensitivity to light
- Noise being magnified, distorted, and muddled
- Hearing conversations in the distance
- Inability to cut out sounds
- Intense and overpowering smells
- Disliking distinctive scents, such as those of perfume or shampoo
- Finding some flavours too strong due to very sensitive taste buds
- Certain food textures causing discomfort
- Disliking having anything on hands and feet, such as gloves and socks
- Difficulties with brushing and washing hair due to a sensitive scalp
- Higher tolerance to clothes that have soft textures
What are the symptoms and effects of hypersensitivities for people with autism?
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People with autism who experience hypersensitivities can display the following symptoms:
- Anxiety and fear
- Irritability and anger
- Muscle tension
- Increased heart rate
- Rapid breathing
- Excessive sweating
- Covering the ears or the eyes to block out unpleasant sounds and sights
- Self-harming behaviours
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Panic attacks
They can also stim as a response to hypersensitivity. Stimming, or self-stimulatory behaviour, can be as follows:
- Repeating words or phrases (also known as echolalia)
- Sitting on the floor and spinning.
- Posturing, such as holding hands or fingers out at a certain angle
- Visual stimulation, such as looking at something sideways
- Repetitive behaviour, such as opening and closing doors
- Chewing or mouthing objects
- Listening to the same song repeatedly
Hypersensitivity can have a profound effect on an autistic person’s life. It can cause them to avoid crowded and noisy places as well as certain foods and items of clothing.
How does hypersensitivity affect people with autism at work?
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The workplace is full of stimuli such as florescent lights, overwhelming smells, and various sounds. These can affect a person with autism by distracting them and making them unable to concentrate.
A report by Beardon and Edmonds (2007) has found that over a third of 237 adults with Asperger syndrome from the U.K. have experienced problems with hypersensitivity at work.
Ways to make workspaces more comfortable for hypersensitive individuals include allocating them to a quieter space, using a carpet instead of laminate flooring and painting walls in neutral colours, such as cream. These adjustments can increase productivity in those with hypersensitivity.
What can be done to support people with autism who experience hypersensitivity?
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Not only can adjustments to a working environment help hypersensitive individuals who are working or volunteering, but other strategies can be made to help other autistic individuals who experience hypersensitivity.
The following strategies can help those who have hypersensitivity:
- Providing sunglasses
- Using blackout curtains
- Closing doors and windows to block out external sounds
- Providing earplugs or headphones with music
- Using unscented products such as detergents and shampoos
- Telling a person in advance if you’re going to touch them and approaching them from the front.
- Changing the texture of a food, such as pureeing it
- Gradually introducing different textures to touch
- Allowing a person to complete activities, such as hair-brushing, at a comfortable level for them
- Removing tags and labels from clothes
- Allowing them to wear clothes they feel comfortable in
Occupational therapists can also support people who experience hypersensitivity. They can use similar techniques to the ones listed above.
If you have autism, you can find out about supporting neurodiversity in the workplace. You can also take our online autism quiz to find out if you have any neurodivergent traits.