"If you've met one person with autism, you've met one person with autism"
- Dr Stephen Shore -
The Autism spectrum is very wide.
A diagnosis of Autism is based on a definition provided by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM 5). This lists the main criteria for a diagnosis as:
Deficits in social communication and social interaction.
Challenges with non-verbal communication.
Deficits in developing, maintaining and understanding relationships.
Stereotyped or repetitive motor movements.
Hyper or hyporeactivity to sensory input.
DSM 5 recognises the complex sensory aspects of Autism and it is understandable that if sensory information is not being processed in an efficient or organised way, we will naturally focus upon fulfilling our internal sensory needs rather than on the external world and social interaction.
Autism and auditory hypersensitivities
People on the autism spectrum can have very acute hearing and are often sensitive to certain sounds; you may have a child who hears aircraft before anyone else notices them, or even hears electricity running through the walls. Certainly many on the spectrum find sounds such as hand dryers, motorbikes and other sounds very disturbing. To understand this, we need to take a look at sound frequencies.
Sound is measured in Hz and it is usually quoted that as humans, we can hear between 20 - 20000Hz. Most of us from about the age of 18-19 already have some high frequency hearing loss and may not be able to hear frequencies above about 16000Hz.
Below, are a number of spectragrams. These show sound frequencies mapped out across time. This first image shows music being played and you can see the complexity evident with multiple frequencies and lots of information for the brain to process. This is good 'auditory food' for the brain and body. The green and blue colours show the sound is a comfortable volume.
The second image is a hand dryer. The white and red colours indicate very loud sound and this is very loud across all frequencies, especially the lower sounds.
Some are very sensitive to higher frequencies that no-one else may hear. This can be very difficult as it means they may react to something and other people are not even aware of why there is a problem. Wearing headphones to block sound completely may be a solution but re-training the ear and brain to process sound more effectively is a better long-term option.
Here you can see a spectrogram recorded in Manchester Airport Departures lounge. The solid white/red line at around 20,000Hz will not be heard by the vast majority of the population. However, someone with autism may be very sensitive at this range which is above the hearing of most humans. They may react with an emotional meltdown or behaviour and you would not know why!
Manchester Airport Departures
How about this one below recorded whilst walking in the quiet countryside. The black indicates relative silence but you can see lots of sound beginning at about 18,000Hz. Again this is above the hearing range of most people - someone with autism could process and hear this sound. In case you are wondering, it is bats using echo location!
These are just some indications of how someone on the spectrum hears and processes sound in a different way. The main tool used at Learning Solutions to help anyone with these auditory sensitivities is The Listening Program®. This can really help us to process sound more effectively and also settle the fight and flight reactions that can become fixed into the brain and body.
Many people with autism have a range of sensitivities or sensory processing differences that cause them to seek out or avoid certain behaviours. This is often called stimming. The behaviour shows us what is happening internally and how they need to stim to seek or avoid sensory input. Here are a few of the more common stims linked with the relevant sensory systems.
This is not an exhaustive list but you may see a number of these in your autistic child. Many stimming behaviours help us to keep alert or alternatively, calm the system. To some extent, we all stim. It is just that most people's stims are more subtle - tapping your feet or shaking your leg repetitively to keep awake. If you see these stims in your child it just helps you to understand which sensory system could benefit from development or more balanced sensory processing.
As well as The Listening Program, we have many years of experience with a wide range of movement-based interventions such as Bi-lateral integration programmes, Reflex Integration, Brain Gym® and Rhythmic Movement Training® amongst others. Our Consultant, Alan Heath, co-developed The Movement Program®.
Combining work with sound, movement, rhythm and the sensory systems can really help underpinning sensory processing and development. Research shows that when the sensory systems function in a more organised way, higher areas of the brain are free to focus upon areas such as attention and the more complex areas such as thinking and planning.
At Learning Solutions, we work with many on the Autism spectrum and specialise in the improvement of sensory processing and integration. We can either develop a personalised programme working with you on Skype, email and phone, or visit your home to offer a full sensory assessment as appropriate. Contact us to discuss your particular needs by taking advantage of the free, 15 minute consultation today.