How to respond empathetically to sensory sensitivities

Written by Emma Marsh

CW: bullying, trauma, ABA 

We all have different sensory sensitivities and varying thresholds. Some people like light massages; others prefer firm massages. You might snuggle under the doona while your partner kicks it off. Some people find background noise highly distracting, while others work better listening to music.

Autistic people have sensory needs and preferences just like everyone else, only these tend to affect them much more so.

In Autistic people, some senses may be amplified, while others may be dampened, and context can play a huge part in responses, too.

These sensory differences would be a huge evolutionary advantage if we still lived a hunter–gatherer existence. Imagine being able to smell and hear a predator before anyone else could!

Unfortunately, it proves hugely distressing in the modern world, so it is important to help your child avoid sensory triggers in order to reduce their overwhelm, and minimise meltdowns due to sensory overload.

But what can you do? Here are some tips for managing sensory differences based on Autistic Researcher Jessica Harrison’s webinar, ‘Help me to Empathise with my Autistic Child.’

Step 1: SUPPORT your child in their sensory differences.

The first thing to do is acknowledge that your child’s sensory triggers are valid, life-impacting issues: they can be painful, distressing and overwhelming, even if you don’t understand or experience these things yourself.

             “Your child’s sensory issues aren’t about your kid being fussy or hard to deal with … it’s not an inconvenience. Sensory issues significantly affect our quality of life,” says Jessica.

So, accept your child’s sensory triggers are not a personal inconvenience. They are your child’s lived reality.

Step 2: EDUCATE yourself about your child’s sensory triggers.

Observe your child closely in any given environment. Watch how they respond to different sensory stimuli. Do they squint in bright lights? Do they refuse to eat foods that have a certain colour, smell or texture? Do they cover their ears or nose when you pass the food court at the shopping centre? With daily observation, you will get to know your child’s sensory profile intimately.

Step 3: NOTICE how different sensory stimuli impact your child.

Notice how each particular trigger affects your child. Do they react with pain, distress, fear, meltdown, shutdown or disconnection? When you have intense sensory sensitivities, what others experience as a simple sound can be so painful that it is physically incapacitating.

Step 4: SOLVE your child’s sensory distress – when you can.

Offer your child solutions to reduce the trigger. “Maybe you could ask them if they would like to bring their headphones next time you go to the shops,” says Jessica.

“By communicating this, you’re showing that you understand what they’re going through, and you’re showing that you’re willing, as their parent, to accommodate that.”

Headphones, sunglasses, even a verbal warning that you are going to put the microwave on, can be a huge help.

Step 5: EMPOWER your child.

Tell your child what you’re offering and why. By offering solutions and describing the situations in which they can help, you teach your child ways they can self-regulate. “Don’t just avoid the food court and say nothing,” says Jessica. “You need to tell them what you’re doing and why so that they can learn these ways of managing sensory triggers.”

“If they know that this is perceived as a serious issue, they might be more likely to ask for accommodations from other people in the future, and to really advocate for their needs … It’s about empowering them.”

Tip: Take the ‘Sh-Aut Cut’
It is upsetting to see your child in distress and you can easily become dysregulated yourself during their sensory overload. Try to remember the acronym, SENSE – Support, Educate, Notice, Solve, Empower – and it might be more accessible to you in the heat of the moment.

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