10 Tips On Supporting Children With Autism And Sensory Needs
The Law Of… Supporting Sensory Needs
For a child with autism and sensory difficulties, the world can be a scary and unfamiliar place.
Learning how to spot the symptoms of sensory needs is key to helping your child develop ways of coping with them.
Samantha Hale, Associate in Education Law and Community Care, offers 10 practical tips on how you can support your child's needs.
Understanding How Autistic Children Process Sensory Information
Imagine you're stepping into a cinema. Suddenly, the lights become so bright that it feels like someone's shining a torch in your eyes. You feel better once you sit down but then the lights turn off and it gets so dark that you become anxious about your surroundings.
To make things worse, a series of loud noises come crashing out of the speakers, quickly getting louder and louder. Covering your ears doesn't help, and you're left feeling frightened and alone.
This is just a glimpse into how a child with autism and sensory difficulties might experience the world.
This is because their brains process information relating to the senses differently and this can cause a child to experience hypersensitivity or hyposensitivity:
- Hypersensitivity is when the brain is overloaded with information and a child becomes extra sensitive to something
- Hyposensitivity happens when the brain doesn’t get enough information so a child needs to seek out additional sensory information
Sensory difficulties have a big impact on the way in which children with autism act, especially as different triggers could cause them anxiety or put them at risk of developing mental health needs.
5 Ways To Help Children Handle Hypersensitivity
If your child has strong reactions to certain objects, actions or environments, it's possible that they are experiencing hypersensitivity.
Rocking or covering their ears when they hear certain sounds, being selective about what they eat, and shielding their eyes are some of the many ways in which children with autism cope with stressful or uncomfortable situations.
Here's some common symptoms of hypersensitivity and ways of helping your child manage them:
- Trouble handling bright lights – some simple ways of tackling this problem include using less powerful light bulbs, getting blackout blinds or curtains, and buying some sunglasses your child can carry with them.
- Struggling with loud noises, which can seem magnified or distorted – if you're going somewhere that's noisy or busy, it's a good idea to explain this to your child beforehand. Ear defenders can also help them to drown out loud noises.
- Avoiding physical contact – for some children, physical contact can be painful, which explains why they might, for example, refuse to wear certain types of clothes or get their hair cut, washed or combed. To counteract this, you could slowly introduce them to different textures, let them do certain things by themselves, and change their clothing (and remove any tags on the inside of their clothes).
- Having trouble with strong smells – perfumes or strong scents can become overwhelming, so it's helpful to use unscented products.
- Struggling with certain types of food and textures – you could monitor which foods and textures your child is more comfortable with and try and expand their diet around similar types of food and textures.
5 Ways To Help Children Cope With Hyposensitivity
Children who are hyposensitive tend to try and experience certain senses in an intense way so that they can try to understand them.
If you think your child is hyposensitive, here's how to spot the symptoms and help them:
- Poor vision, which could include blurred central or peripheral vision – visual aids such as coloured images or objects might make it easier for your child to make sense of their surroundings.
- May only hear sounds in one ear and may not acknowledge particular sounds – it's possible that some children who enjoy making loud noises or being in a noisy atmosphere are under-sensitive to noise. If this is the case, visual aids such as written words and images, photos, or symbols could help you both communicate clearly.
- A limited sense of smell – some children have a limited sense of smell, and might find extreme ways of trying to experience odours. Try using products with strong scents like citrus as a way of introducing new fragrances to your child.
- Experience physical contact, pressure and pain differently – some children might have a high pain threshold and some might hold onto people or objects very tightly as they don't experience pressure in the same way. If your child doesn't usually tell you when they're injured, the Non-communicating Children's Pain Checklist is a helpful tool to use to identify whether your child is hurt.
- Enjoy playing rough or frequently moving – restlessness or an urge to keep moving could be channelled into sports or activities that teach your child how to focus on something whilst also keeping them active.
What Support Is There For Children With Sensory Needs And Autism?
There's a range of therapies out there for children with sensory difficulties – it's a matter of finding something that your child responds to well and enjoys.
Some useful therapies include:
Can Sensory Needs Be Included In Education, Health And Care Plans (EHCPs)?
Sensory and physical needs are covered by the SEND Code of Practice, meaning that your child is entitled to support from their school, college or Local Authority.
It's also possible that your child's sensory needs could be viewed as a disability under the Equality Act 2010.
According to the SEND Code of Practice, children and young people with special educational needs (SEN) might have a disability if they have "a physical or mental impairment which has a long-term and substantial adverse effect on their ability to carry out normal day-to-day activities."
This means that schools, colleges and local authorities must make reasonable adjustments – "including the provision of auxiliary aids and services" – for children or young people who are at a disadvantage in comparison to their classmates.
It's also unlawful for any of these institutions to discriminate against your child on the basis of their needs – this relates to failing to offer your child a place at school or unfairly excluding them because of their SEN.
How Can Simpson Millar Help Me?
If your child has sensory needs and an EHCP but they're not getting the right support at school, speak to our Education Law team as soon as possible. We can review your child's EHCP and offer advice on getting any provisions amended or added. Our experts can also offer you guidance on what you can do if your Local Authority refuses to change or issue an EHCP.
If your child doesn't have an EHCP, we can walk you through the process of requesting this via their school or your Local Authority.