For children living with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), navigating the world around them can be challenging. Joel Desotelle, licensed pediatric occupational therapist and program director of Keystone Pediatric Therapies in Chambersburg, sheds some light on sensory problems and treatment for children living with ASD.
How the senses affect children living with ASD
In order to do everyday tasks, our brain needs information to be able to think, problem solve, plan and organize. That information comes in through our senses (sight, hearing, touch, taste, smell, balance and movement), and is quickly sorted and distributed throughout the brain. Each brain center works together to use this information to help us survive, learn and accomplish daily goals (such as getting dressed, completing homework, learning a new subject, etc.). Individuals living with autism struggle to manage all of this sensory information, making these tasks a lot harder.
For an individual to grow and learn skills, the brain centers need to talk to each other. This requires a good network of “roads” and the “fuel” (brain chemistry) to get those messages around. While the cause of autism is not fully understood, we do know that individuals living with ASD lack a good road system and brain chemistry for the brain to work efficiently.
The effect of sensory processing issues
The world around us moves quickly. From birth, our brains take in an enormous amount of information, helping us to learn and grow. As we get older, we start to talk and work together, sharing information in real time. But what happens if a person’s brain can’t keep up or cannot handle all this information? These individuals struggle to learn and understand, and quickly look for ways to compensate, withdraw from and/or react to these challenges. As time passes, core skills are missed and each child struggles to keep up.
ASD Is hard for everyone involved
Whether it’s your child, relative, student, patient or client, everyone involved in the child’s life wants to help. The disorder is a puzzle, because the problem is not black and white. Without understanding all of the issues and how to address them (and in what order), it is easy to set the bar too high or too low for these great kids. Do they truly understand your comments, a situation or the expectations of an activity? This can lead to frustration for everyone involved, putting a strain on relationships and family life.
Treatment: Where to start
The best way to help individuals with ASD is to start with the basics. Occupational therapists use sensory integration and other strategies to build roads and get the brain chemistry in a good place. These strategies also help to integrate reflexes that can persist in children with ASD, while improving self-regulation and attention, and laying the groundwork to work on core skills (awareness, comprehension, initiation, etc.). It is important to work with your occupational therapist to identify where your child needs to start and develop a roadmap for treatment. Starting in the wrong place can lead to further delays, stress and even unwanted behaviors.