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Processing in Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)

If you’ve met one person on the autism spectrum, you’ve met one person on the spectrum.

~Prof. Stephen Shore

Autism Spectrum Disorder is a group of complex neurodevelopmental conditions related to the brain that affects how people communicate, interact socially, behave and learn. ASD is more common than you think – around 1 in 100 Australians is autistic, with 85% of the community having a personal connection with an autistic person.

Every autistic person is different, it affects the way individuals experience and interact with the world around them.

Sensory Processing in ASD

Many children with ASD will experience either both hypersensitivity (over-responsiveness) or hyposensitivity (under-responsiveness) to sensory stimuli, including touch, taste, smell, sound, sight and/or movement.

Hypersensitivity – leads to sensory avoidance. People experiencing this may react to a wide range of triggers, including loud sounds, uncomfortable clothing, crowded spaces, or certain food smells or textures, among others.

Sensory overload can lead to sensory meltdowns (not to be confused with tantrums, because meltdowns are outside a child’s control); or shutdowns, where the child has difficulty communicating or responding.

Hyposensitivity – leads to sensory-seeking behaviours. They often have a need for movement and may seek out other inputs like spicy or sour tastes, physical contact and pressure.

Stimming is a form of sensory seeking. Repetitive movements, sounds or fidgeting can help people with autism relieve stress or stay calm.

Keep in mind it is not always one or the other. Some individuals may be sensory seeking in certain situations and sensory avoidant in others. Other lesser-known sensory issues include:

· Interoception – It is the sense that helps you understand and feel what is happening in your body. People who have trouble with this sense may have a high-tolerance for pain, and/or struggle when they feel hungry, cold, hot etc.

· Body and Spatial Awareness – People experiencing issues with these senses have trouble knowing where their body is in relation to their environment.

Executive Function

Executive Function is the brain’s self-management system; they work together to help organise and act on information. Autistic people often have difficulty with executive functioning skills, which can cause academic, social and emotional challenges.

Executive functioning skills include:

· flexible thinking

· working memory

· self-monitoring

· planning and prioritising

· task initiation

· organisation

· impulse control

· and emotional control.

Weak Central Coherence

“Central Coherence” is the ability to understand the overall meaning from a mass of details. It enables people to “see the bigger picture” and decipher the general meaning.

People with autism may have a different way of perceiving the world around them. For example, they may walk into a room and not notice social cues like other people, but notice the pattern on the carpet floor.

Weak central coherence can present as both a challenge and a strength for autistic individuals. They may excel at focusing on extreme detail and can pick out tiny details from a mass of complex data.

Processing Time

These aspects of ASD may contribute to people with autism having slower processing time when presented with linguistic, cognitive and social information. Even processing internal emotions can be delayed. This means response to an event could range from hours to days later.

This may pose challenges in the classroom, particularly around expectations like remembering spoken instructions and timed tests.

While the term ASD is commonly referred to as autism, it includes Asperger syndrome and Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS). Feeling judged can be very stressful for autistic people and their families, DyslexAbility seeks to educate and destigmatise ASD.

Contact us at (03) 5996 6006, or to see how DyslexAbility can best support you and your family.

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