Picture yourself being touched gently by the person you love. Imagine him or her smiling at you sweetly.
Your natural reaction would include reciprocating with the same smile.
Now imagine yourself going into an uncontrollable tantrum (also known as a meltdown) because of that light touch?
What a terrible and unexpected feeling, you must be thinking.
Indeed it is.
As neurotypicals (people not on the spectrum), we have never had any issues with our senses. We regularly subject ourselves to bright strobing lights, loud piercing music and heavy rude touches. Although slightly irritated at times, we’ve never had a strong emotional response to these senses.
But this is not the case for autism.
You see, up to 90% of children with autism experience some form of sensory issues.
Some of them are unable to tolerate light touches as they are sensory over-responsive. Others suffer from the opposite: under-responsivity. These children may be unaware of pain and may take longer to react when they touch a boiling surface. Some of them crave for sensations frequently. They may fidget all the time, make loud noises or exhibit behaviors that are risky and dangerous.
These are not trivial concerns. A study has suggested that 1 in every 6 children are experiencing sensory symptoms that are significant enough to impact their daily life. Although the study may not have stated that most of them who are impacted are diagnosed with autism, it is still a severe issue for them. Chantal Sicile-Kira who is an autism advocate, author and speaker raised the same point.
From Psychology Today:
“In interviewing adults and teenagers of different ability levels for my book, Autism Life Skills (Penguin 2008), most of them stated sensory processing challenges as the number one difficulty for them, regardless of where they were on the spectrum.”
Your 5 +2 Senses
What exactly are these sensory processing challenges?
You can now imagine what it feels like given the above scenario.
Yet, to fully understand sensory processing challenges, we must first define sensory processing.
As we have learnt way back when we were young, we have our 5 senses. As we grow older, we may have encountered the other 2 unknown senses. But altogether these 5 +2 senses are integral to how we live.
1) Sight – Your Eyes
2) Hearing – Your Ears
3) Smell – Your Nose
4) Taste – Your Tongue
5) Touch – Your Skin
6) Vestibular (Orientation and Balance) – Your Inner Ears
7) Proprioception (Relative positions of our body parts) – Your Joints
Sensory processing is where your nervous system receives information from your respective body parts and turns them into the required responses.
However, you do not work your senses one by one. As you would have already experienced in your life, you do not see the pizza first before smelling it. You are able to experience all the senses at the same time. You can see the pizza, smell its enticing cheesy aroma, taste it, touch the thin crust, and know the relative positions of your hands and lips as you orientate the slice towards yourself. These senses work together simultaneously in a process called sensory integration.
Sensory integration was defined in 1972 by Dr. Anna Jean Ayres in her seminal book Sensory Integration and Learning Disorders.
From Dr. Ayres:
“the neurological process that organizes sensation from one's own body and from the environment and makes it possible to use the body effectively within the environment”
For people facing sensory processing challenges, they are unable to make sense of the information coming in from the senses (hence a problem with sensory integration). As such, they are unable to deal with this influx of complex information.
Dr. Ayres describes it best:
“It's like a traffic jam in your head, with conflicting signals quickly coming from all directions, so that you don't know how to make sense of it all.”
Why does this issue with sensory integration occur?
A study conducted last year suggests that children with autism have trouble associating information coming from the eyes and ears that happen within a certain period of time.
However, that is possibly only the start to discovering the puzzle.
As of now, we have no answers as to why these sensory issues occur.
Can we help these children?
Even though we may not know the exact cause of these sensory processing challenges, we can still help them alleviate the pain as much as possible.
In the same article by Sicile-Kira, she suggests several methods available as to how we can help alleviate the pain from experiencing these sensory challenges.
Here they are:
1) Sensory Integration Therapy
Occupational therapists use play activities designed to alter how the brain reacts to the senses.
An example is the Wilbarger Protocol where children who are sensitive to touch may be brushed regularly to desensitize their body.
2) Sensory Diet
Any activities that target the area where the child is suffering and allow him/her to do the activity at regular intervals throughout the day.
An example of such an activity could be moulding Play-Doh for children sensitive to touch.
3) Short Breaks
For children who are high-functioning, short breaks can be inserted to get away from possible overloading of sensory information.
From The Ultimate Guide to Sensory Processing Disorder:
“They can either set pre-planned and specific times for these short breaks or take them on an as-needed basis. This is an adaptive way of dealing with sensory overload or sensory understimulation in advance and in a socially acceptable way.”
4) Deep Touch Pressure
Deep touch pressure is the pressure you experience in most types of firm touching, especially hugging. It has been observed to elicit calming effects, especially in children with autism spectrum disorder.
Deep touch pressure was discovered to be useful for children with autism when Temple Grandin, a famous animal science researcher at Colorado State University (she is possibly the most famous person with autism) invented a hug machine.
She discovered her idea from the cattle ranchers as they used a device called the squeeze chute to calm the cattle down before slaughtering. She herself enjoyed climbing into the squeeze chute to enjoy the calming effect elicited by the machine.
From there on, she invented the hug machine which has been used in programs to calm children with autism.
Today, there are several options in which a “hug” can be administered. Most people with autism use a weighted blanket or a weighted vest. These weighted items produce the feeling of deep touch pressure when put on. Other devices include a manual pump hug jacket in which the jacket is fitted snugly around the person, and manually inflated to produce a feeling of hugging.
Here at Tware, we have also our own flagship product, the Tjacket.
The Tjacket is a hug vest that is remotely controlled via an app (through Bluetooth). The vest is also fitted snugly around the person and can be inflated to a pressure of the person’s choice (the app has options).
(You can learn more about the Tjacket here.)
The best deep touch pressure therapy is the one in which the person uses often. So it does not matter which product is chosen, as long as it produces the same calming effects as intended.
As the end to this post, I would like you to tell me which deep pressure products are you currently using and has it been helpful to you? If you haven’t been using any, which of the products would you think would be useful to you, your child or your friends?
Leave a comment now and let me know your answer!