By Karen Kabaki-Sisto, M.S. CCC-SLP

Do you shriek when you hear fingernails scrape across a chalkboard? Do you feel icky wearing soggy clothes after you get caught in a rainstorm? If these types of situations make you feel uncomfortable, you’ve experienced a kind of hypersensitive sensory dislike or aversion.

Of course, you’re probably able to get some relief through talking about your feelings with others and then recovering quickly.

However, some children with Autism suffer from Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD, previously known as Sensory Integration Dysfunction), a condition where the messages from the senses are not regulated appropriately. Given difficulties using language, some children with Autism may not be able to accurately explain and describe their experiences, leading to frustration.

Help Your Child

Here are ways to help your child communicate their pain
and release their emotions while you share your similar
feelings and empathize:

Children with hypersensitivity may overreact to the rub of clothing tags or to the intensity of loud noises. Since they sometimes can’t filter out or process sensations, they can become overloaded and shut down, tantrum, feel anxiety, or get depressed. Sometimes the reason your child has an aversion to a certain sensation seems obvious, but to be certain, encourage them to describe their feelings with more descriptive, exact words.

For example, every time the mother of my client tried to give him a shower, he would scream, “No! I don’t like the shower.” Presuming it was the temperature of the water, the mother made the water increasingly cooler, but nothing worked. Then, one day while her son was in the shower, she reported that he said, “Stop the fire hose!” This comment revealed that he felt the force of the water to be too extreme, like a fire hose.

Later, through further discussion, we also discovered that he perceived the sound amplification of the rushing water as deafening. After his parents installed a rainfall shower head, he enjoyed this sensory experience so much that they couldn’t get him out of the shower!

As in the example above, words like, “I don’t like it,” and “Yucky,” and “Ew,” don’t tell much about why or what sensory features the child finds offensive. Using more descriptive language helps to accurately identify the sensory issues your child is having. You can model more descriptive words, like these below, that are often underused or overlooked:

Touch/feel: slimy, sticky, pasty, prickly, greasy, rubbery…
Taste: flaky, fatty, tough, fresh, foamy, spicy…
Sight: glossy, crooked, straight, crowded, curved, flickering…
Smell: bitter, rotten, salty, sour, sweet, tart…
Movement: dizzy, squirmy, crawly, creepy, scrub, spray…
Sound: bang, boom, buzz, chirp, chug, click…
Feelings: afraid, anxious, dizzy, fearful, frightened, frustrated, annoyed, interested, curious…

Here are some examples of how you can model these descriptor words in everyday life:

  • “Ugh! The harsh roar of that motorcycle engine is so disturbing and annoying!”
  • “Shh…listen to the gentle crackling of your cereal in the milk. The crackling sound is peaceful.”
  • “I prefer these doughy cookies instead of those that are crispy, crumbly, and crusty. I like to chew my cookie without hearing it crunch.”

With broader vocabulary, you can better learn your child’s sensory preferences. Explore scales of degree, level, and gradation to gauge how much is too much for your child’s comfort. For example, wetness has a spectrum of damp-moist-soaking, and coldness ranges from cool-cold-freezing. Given an understanding of different spectrums, you can compare extremes like, “Do you like the lights ‘bright’ like this or ‘dim’ like this,” or “Should I make your juice ‘icy’ with ice cubes or ‘cool’ just out of the fridge?”

Similes provide rich descriptions: “Loud as a cruise ship horn,” or “gentle like rain,” or “like the power of a fire hose,” or “smells like a pool,” (chlorine or chemical). You can ask your child if he feels a certain article of clothing is “rough like sandpaper,” or “soft like powder.”

If the goal is to avoid unpleasant sensory input, your child and you can use language to think of solutions or alternatives. Though one of my clients refused to eat a whole strawberry because it felt “prickly” on her tongue, she enjoyed strawberries in other forms like a “smooth” smoothie or “sticky” jelly. Through a process of desensitization in his occupational therapy sessions, another client asked to use rubber gloves while painting so he “didn’t get his hands gooey.”

If your child has limited language abilities and vocabulary, you can try to figure out preferred or non-preferred characteristics in other ways. Keep in mind that your child might like what most people don’t, and they might dislike what most people like. One of my clients liked strong spices like onion/garlic powder and turmeric though his parents preferred bland foods. Another client of mine didn’t like sticky things like wet sand, peanut butter, hazelnut spread, and marshmallow paste. His mother assumed that he wouldn’t like other types of pastes (like peanut butter). But, he was ok with toothpaste, pesto sauce, and polenta. So, we concluded that he didn’t like the quality of “sticky” but was ok with the quality of “paste.”

Hypersensitive Sensory Processing Disorder can be upsetting to your child. Using more descriptive language allows your child to explore and form their own opinion for personal growth and safety. Communication is the way to connect with them for empathy, reassurance, and alternatives, all while making your relationship stronger.

About the Author:

Karen Kabaki-Sisto, M.S. CCC-SLP, has been a communication expert for over 20 years. As a certified Speech-Language Pathologist and Applied Behavior Analysis Instructor, Karen has been empowering people with Autism & special needs to have more meaningful conversations like never before. Her highly effective I CAN! For Autism Method™ – perfected for over 10 years and now incorporated within the iPad app “I Can Have Conversations With You!™” – is changing lives through improved social and language skills.

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You’ll find expert care for your child such as Karen’s Free Communication Assessment Tool. This private, online step-by-step question & answer evaluation provides an immediate report showing where a parent, teacher, or professional may want to spend more time in certain areas of learning and development.