The Sensory World of Autistic Children

Children on the autism spectrum are characterized by their inability to begin picking up and social cues and engaging in regular social interaction.  Psychology experts say that people who are not as in tune with social interaction may be that way because they are trying to escape the feeling of sensory overload. Many people are quick to think that they have some sort of deficit of empathy or are mentally slow. This phenomenon is called “intense world” theory in psychology. 

Maia Szalavitz writes in her article The Boy Whose Brain Could Unlock Autism, “Consider what it might feel like to be a baby in a world of relentless and unpredictable sensation. An overwhelmed infant might, no surprisingly, attempt to escapeUnlike adults, however, babies can flee. All they can do is cry and rock, and later, try to avoid touch, eye contact, and other powerful experiences. Autistic children might revel in patterns and predictability just to make sense of the chaos.”

Autistic brains tend to be hyper-connected, so instead of being linked to 5 cells its actually linked to 20. “Just to survive, you’d need to be excellent at detecting any pattern you could find in the frightful and oppressive noise. To stay sane, you’d have to control as much as possible, developing a rigid focus on detail, routine, and repetition. Systems in which specific inputs produce predictable outputs would be far more attractive than human beings, with their mystifying and inconsistent demands and their haphazard behavior,” Szalavitz explains. 

For example, Adam, a boy on the autism spectrum, is at the park with his mother and playing in his own world. All of a sudden he cries out and starts pointing animatedly at the cars and traffic on the street. They make out the words “white police truck” as he’s saying them over and over. As his mother listened carefully the sounds of a distant siren could be heard. Adam had apparently isolated the distant sound of the siren amidst all of the playground and street noises.

This protection strategy does come at a cost however, in that it takes away from a very critical time in their neurodevelopmentwhich may lead to social and language impairments. Emotion is also is big player in sensory overload. The parts of the brain that are having strong reactions to things like sound or texture will then have stronger reactions to things like pain, and emotion. Kamila Markam, researcher at the Brain Mind Center at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, has an autistic son who, when asked if he thinks he sees things differently from others, explains, “I feel them different”.