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Sensory Therapies and Autism

Autism and Sensory Issues often go hand-in-hand.   It is common to have sensory issues that affect both behavior and perception.  However, Sensory Processing disorders are not necessarily affected by Autism.

Many experts feel that the focus on sensory issues today is where the focus on autism was in the 90's. As the interest on autism has exploded since then, they believe that sensory challenges will become the primary focus in the future . . . even more emphasized than autism. Go to www.sensoryworld.com for more information.

There was a question submitted to Dr. Temple Grandin this past month from an individual researching to prove Sensory Therapies are crucial elements to improve the quality of life for children with ASD.

Below are the opinions of Temple in regards to Sensory Therapies.

Why is it important to consider sensory therapies?

For some individuals with autism, sensory therapies are very beneficial.  Autism is highly variable and a sensory therapy that works well for one child may have no effect on another.  Some of the most common sensory therapies are the use of deep pressure for calming, slow swinging, heavy work activities, and the brushing method.  Sensory therapies performed by an occupational therapist can help some children to be calmer, more attentive and may aid in speech development.

How do you assess the sensory therapy a child needs?

Children who seek deep pressure by rolling up in blankets or who get under mattresses are the ones most likely to benefit from deep pressure.  In small children, deep pressure can be easily applied by rolling a child in heavy mats or getting under bean bag chairs.  In many individuals, the squeeze machine or other devices that apply pressure are calming.  Deep pressure is most effective when it is applied for 20 minutes and then removed for 20 minutes.  Kids that like to swing may benefit from it.  Some children may be able to speak more easily while they are doing slow swinging or sitting balancing on an exercise ball.  Weighted vests help some children and do not work for others.

What does sensory diet mean?

A sensory diet simply means that at certain intervals, a child may need a break to calm his nervous system down.  Sensory problems are on a continuum from mild to severe.  Children with more severe sensory problems will need more frequent breaks to calm down an over aroused nervous system.  During these breaks, the child can engage in sensory activities that are calming.  It is often best to have the breaks at scheduled times to prevent accidentally rewarding a child for throwing a tantrum.  If the child gets sensory breaks after he/she behaves badly, he/she may behave badly to obtain more breaks.

What are the most common sensory therapies?

  • Deep pressure such as rolling up in mats, weighted vest, squeeze machine or weighted blanket to help sleep.
  • Slow swinging 10 to 12 times a minute for calming
  • Brushing the skin with soft brushes for calming (Wilbarger Method)
  • Irlen lenses and pastel-colored paper to help with reading.  Pale colored lenses help a subset of children with autism or dyslexia with reading.  When the child picks the right pale color that works for them, the print will stop jiggling on the page.  Often pale pink, light blue or light tan sunglasses are helpful.  More information is on the Irlen website.  Try printing reading materials on different pastel papers such as light green, light blue, tan, gray, lavender, and light yellow. The child must choose the paper that works best for them.  Children who respond well to colored lenses and colored paper often cannot tolerate 50- or 60-cycle florescent lights.  If possible, get the child away from florescent lights. They can see the flicker of florescent lights and they make the room flicker like a strobe light.
  • Chewing Activities – Some children respond well to having things to chew.  Chewing activities will calm them down.  They need oral stimulation.
  • Balls and other items to hold in their hand and squeeze. This helps some kids sit still.
  • Auditory Training – There are a number of CDs and devices for auditory training.  The child listens to music that has been electronically modified.  For some children, auditory training may help reduce sound sensitivity and improve the ability to hear hard consonant sounds.  Some auditory training programs are very expensive and the results are highly variable and may not be worth the cost.  Try simpler methods first such as speaking slowly to the child to help him hear hard consonant sounds.  Singing is helpful for some children and they may be able to learn to sing words before they can learn to speak them.  Singing coupled with careful enunciation of hard consonants, such as the “c” and “t” in cat may be helpful.


How is sensory integration determined to meet the needs of the individual?

When a sensory therapy works, the child will usually want to do it.  Therapies that work should show a beneficial effect on behavior.  In some cases, sensory therapies can help reduce or stop self-abusive behaviors.  When this works, the child will start to hit himself, but will stop because normal pain sensation returns.

What are the goals of sensory therapy?

To help reduce tantrums, meltdowns, and hyperactivity, increase staying on task, and reduce self-injurious behavior.

How soon will improvements start?

Often improvements will occur within a few weeks.  When a sensory therapy works, there will be less meltdowns, tantrums, and more calm behavior.  The child will be able to stay on task for longer periods of time.

Recommended Reading List:

Carol Kranowitz – "The Out-of-Sync Child"

Lindsey Biel – Raising a Sensory Smart Child

Roya Ostovar – "The Ultimate Guide to Sensory Processing Disorders"

Angie Voss – Understanding Your Child’s Sensory Signals – Full of Practical tips to Help a Child Handle Activities that Cause Sensory Problems


Stumbling Blocks for the Autistic -
Often Conceptions rather than Ability.

If algebra had been a required course for college graduation in 1967, there would be no Temple Grandin.

At least, no Temple Grandin as the world knows her today: professor, inventor, best-selling author and rock star in the seemingly divergent fields of animal science and autism education.

"I probably would have been a handyman, fixing toilets at some apartment building somewhere," said Grandin, 66. "I can't do algebra. It makes no sense. Why does algebra have to be the gateway to all the other mathematics?"

The abstract concepts in algebra present a common stumbling block for many with an autism spectrum disorder, which affects an estimated 1 in 88 American children according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. For autistic and "photo-realistic visual thinkers" such as Grandin, understanding comes from being able to see and work through a concept in images, creating what is in effect a virtual reality program that plays out in the brain. In this manner, Grandin - who didn't speak until she was almost 4 - conceptualized down to minute details her design for a humane livestock restraint system now used on nearly half of the cattle in the U.S.

Fortunately, the academic trend in the late 1960s was finite math, a course Grandin passed with the help of tutors and devoted study, satisfying her college math requirement. She went on to earn a bachelor's degree in psychology and both masters and doctoral degrees in animal science. For the past two decades, she's been a professor at Colorado State University.

"I was lucky. Very, very, very lucky," said Grandin, who's widely described as the most well-known person with autism in the world. With appearances on NBC's "Today" show and "Larry King Live," plus an Emmy-winning 2010 HBO docudrama based on her life, there's no arguing she's become something of a pop-culture icon.

The problem with labels.

As the number of children diagnosed with autism continues to rise nationally, Grandin is sharing her message about the disorder and "differently-abled brains" with packed houses. At the heart of that message is this: Rigid academic and social expectations could wind up stifling a mind that - while it might struggle to conjugate a verb - could one day take us to distant stars.

"Parents get so worried about the deficits that they don't build up the strengths, but those skills could turn into a job," said Grandin, who addresses scientific advances in understanding autism in her newest book, "The Autistic Brain: Thinking Across the Spectrum." "These kids often have uneven skills. We need to be a lot more flexible about things. Don't hold these math geniuses back. You're going to have to give them special ed in reading because that tends to be the pattern, but let them go ahead in math."

Early diagnosis can lead to early intervention and access to special education programs, and, while crucial for children with severe autism, also means a permanent label that ultimately could impede progress - and the healthy development of a child's identity.

"One of the problems today is for a kid to get any special services in school, they have to have a label. The problem with autism is you've got a spectrum that goes from Einstein down to someone with no language," said Grandin, who has a form of high-functioning autism known as Asperger's syndrome. "Steve Jobs was probably mildly on the autistic spectrum. Basically, you've probably known people who were geeky and socially awkward but very smart. When does geeks and nerds become autism? That's a gray area. Half the people in Silicon Valley probably have autism."

Lacking life skills.

A label also can impact parental expectations, a major source of therapeutic momentum. A parent with a diagnosed autistic child might be reluctant to teach practical, social skills that are outside the child's comfort zone, such as ordering food at a lunch counter.

"It hurts because they don't have enough expectations for the kids. I see too many kids who are smart who've graduated, but they're not getting a job because when they were young they didn't learn any work skills," Grandin said. "They've got no life skills. The parent thinks, 'Oh, poor Tommy, he has autism so he doesn't have to learn things like shopping.'"

Grandin was raised by her mother in the 1950s, a time when social skills were "pounded into every single child," she said.

"Children in my generation when they were teenagers they had jobs and learned how to work. I cleaned horse stalls," she said. "When I was 8 years old, my mother made me be a party hostess - shake hands, take coats. In the 1950s, social skills were taught in a much more rigid way so kids who were mildly autistic were forced to learn them. It hurts the autistic much more than it does the normal kids to not have these skills formally taught."

Erstwhile jobs such as neighborhood newspaper routes were perfect opportunities for children with autism to learn responsibility and how to function in the real world.

"I wish we still had them because they forced these children to interact with people," Grandin said.

The skills that people with autism bring to the table should be nurtured, for their benefit and society's, Grandin said. And if a cure for autism were found, she would choose to stay just the way she is.

"I like the really logical way that I think. I'm totally logical. In fact, it kind of blows my mind how irrational human beings are," she said. "If you totally got rid of autism, you'd have nobody to fix your computer in the future."

Autism facts.

- 1 in 88 U.S. children has been identified with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
- 1 in 85 Colorado children is affected by the disorder.
- The national estimated prevalence of ASDs increased 78 percent between 2002 and 2008.
- ASDs were found to affect almost five times as many boys as girls.
- The majority (62 percent) of children with ASDs did not have intellectual disabilities.

Temple Speaks Out on Sensory Issues!

"I have been talking and writing about sensory problems for over 20 years, and am still perplexed by many people who do not acknowledge sensory issues and the pain and discomfort they can cause.  A person doesn't have to be on the autism spectrum to be affected by sensory issues."

-Dr Temple Grandin, The Way I See It

For more information on sensory issues, please go to www.sensoryworld.com.

About Temple Grandin

Dr. Grandin didn't talk until she was three and a half years old, communicating her frustration instead by screaming, peeping, and humming. In 1950, she was diagnosed with autism and her parents were told she should be institutionalized. She tells her story of "groping her way from the far side of darkness" in her book Emergence: Labeled Autistic, a book which stunned the world because, until its publication, most professionals and parents assumed that an autism diagnosis was virtually a death sentence to achievement or productivity in life.

Dr. Grandin has become a prominent author and speaker on the subject of autism because "I have read enough to know that there are still many parents, and yes, professionals too, who believe that 'once autistic, always autistic.' This dictum has meant sad and sorry lives for many children diagnosed, as I was in early life, as autistic. To these people, it is incomprehensible that the characteristics of autism can be modified and controlled. However, I feel strongly that I am living proof that they can" (from Emergence: Labeled Autistic).

Even though she was considered "weird" in her young school years, she eventually found a mentor, who recognized her interests and abilities. Dr. Grandin later developed her talents into a successful career as a livestock-handling equipment designer, one of very few in the world. She has now designed the facilities in which half the cattle are handled in the United States, consulting for firms such as Burger King, McDonald's, Swift, and others.

Temple Grandin, Ph.D., is now the most accomplished and well-known adult with autism in the world. Her fascinating life, with all its challenges and successes has been brought to the screen. She has been featured on NPR (National Public Radio), major television programs, such as the BBC special "The Woman Who Thinks Like a Cow", ABC's Primetime Live, The Today Show, Larry King Live, 48 Hours and 20/20, and has been written about in many national publications, such as Time magazine, People magazine, Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, and New York Times.. Among numerous other recognitions by media, Bravo Cable did a half-hour show on her life, and she was featured in the best-selling book, Anthropologist from Mars.

Dr. Grandin presently works as a Professor of Animal Science at Colorado State University. She also speaks around the world on both autism and cattle handling. At every Future Horizons conference on autism, the audience rates her presentation as 10+.

Dr. Grandin's current bestselling book on autism is The Way I See It: A Personal Look at Autism and Asperger's. She also authored Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships, Animals Make us Human, Animals in Translation, Thinking in Pictures, Emergence: Labeled Autistic and produced several DVDs. All books and DVD's available through Future Horizons.

Temple Grandin's work continues to inspire millions, drawing superlative reviews such as these:

"Temple is my hero. She has my vote for the person who has provided the greatest advance in our understanding of autism this century."

-Dr. Tony Attwood, world renowned expert on autism spectrum disorders.

On The Way I See It:

"Every library, large or small, needs this book on its shelves. Every school, large or small, with the responsibility of educating children with autism or Asperger’s needs the guidance this book offers. . . . Last, and certainly not least, every parent will find within these pages golden nuggets of advice, encouragement, and hope to fuel their day-to-day journey through their child’s autism. . . . The wisdom she offers through this book and its personal reflections on autism will, I’m sure, ring true for many more decades to come."

-Ruth Christ Sullivan, first elected president of the Autism Society of America

On Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships:

"I wish I had this book when Sean was a child. It would have helped me understand Sean so much more."

-Judy Barron, mother of author Sean Barron and co-author of There’s A Boy In Here

"If you’ve ever wondered, ‘What is going through my child’s mind? Why can’t he get social interactions?’ then this book is for you! ‘A-ha!’ moments abound."

-Veronica Zysk, managing editor of award-winning Autism Asperger’s Digest