Most people can see, hear and feel sights, sounds, textures, temperatures –which we call ‘sensory information’  

Many autistic people have sensory sensitivities or need sensory stimulation – or a bit of both!

Autistic people tend to process sensory information in ways that are different from most other people   

Of course, every autistic person will have different and individual sensory needs – and to help them meet these needs, you will need to get to know the person 


Commonly, an autistic person may find certain sights, sounds, tastes, textures, smells or movements too much – and difficult to cope with.  This is known as ‘hypersensitivity’ 

This may mean that certain noises, clothes, foods or lighting might make them feel ‘dysregulated’ this is the term used when someone is feeling very irritated, distressed or even in pain – due to their sensory sensitivity 


It is also common for an autistic person to want or need other types of sensory information more than most other people.  This is known as ‘hyposensitivity’ 

For example, they might like to touch certain fabrics or listen to certain sounds 

These things can be ‘regulating’ for them – this means they are soothing or satisfying or help them generally feel happy and comfortable   


There are also senses within the body and mind 

Sensing these is called ‘interoception’ 

These senses can be hard for autistic people to gauge and regulate 

For example, they might struggle to realise they are hungry, thirsty or cold – or be super sensitive (‘hypersensitive’) to any of these 

They might be hypersensitive to pain – or alternatively appear to be under-sensitive (‘hyposensitive’) 

Similarly autistic people sometimes struggle to recognise and ‘read’ their own emotions  

Interoception Poster by Kelly Mahler

For more information on interoception click here for Kelly Mahler’s website

Proprioception and vestibular sensitivity  

Proprioception is our ability to work out where our bodies and parts of our bodies are – in time and space 

And we also have a vestibular system that helps us to sense our balance 

Autistic people can often have difficulties with both these sensory systems 

For example, some autistic people might appear clumsy or walk awkwardly 


The way autistic people process sensory information varies from person to person and can change over time – or even from day to day, often depending on stress levels 

So, for example, one person could be hypersensitive to noise, such as clocks ticking or fire alarms – but as they age may also find they enjoy listening to very loud music by choice, at certain times 

Another person may find it unbearable if someone brushes past them in a corridor or they get a papercut – but on another day may enjoy a squeezy hug or sustain a significant injury and appear to be fine about it 

Ideas to help

Stimulating one sense can have a knock-on effect on another sense.  So, if a person is already feeling dysregulated, this may make them hypersensitive to other sensory information 

For example, a person who is sensitive to bright lights but usually copes OK with some noise, may find that if they are in a brightly lit environment, this dysregulates them and they also struggle to cope with noise at the same time 

Similarly, if a person engages in a certain sensory seeking behaviour, they know helps to regulate them (e.g., fiddling with a fidget toy, sniffing a favourite body lotion, listening to good music) – they may find this helps to make them less likely to be dysregulated by other sensory experiences 

It is vital to note that if an autistic person is struggling to tolerate sensory information, this will likely cause stress

It will probably have a negative impact on their ability to focus, to interact with others and to take part 

So, considering how you can adapt the environment is crucial.  For example, reducing noise and visual distractions; providing and allowing headphones / ear defenders; low lighting, drawing the curtains, sunglasses; moving to a different room; adapting clothing and / or food options 

 If sensory processing difficulties are causing a person problems, you may want to ask your doctor about the possibility of a referral to an Occupational Therapists (OT).  OTs are the experts in assessing a person’s specific sensory profile and working out useful adaptations and interventions  

A health care professional (including GPs) or a school teacher can make a referral for a Parent Education Workshop  – for parents whose children have difficulties in their daily life caused by sensory processing problems.  They would need to complete and submit the following form: 

Click here to access the families, young people and children’s service referral form

Further resources

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