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Issues of Sensory Integration
and Tactile Defensiveness

(Material is taken in part from Hatch-Rasmussen, Cindy. "Sensory Integration")

Children and adults with autism, as well as those with other developmental disabilities, may have a dysfunctional sensory system. Sometimes one or more senses are either over- or under-reactive to stimulation. Such sensory problems may be the underlying reason for such behaviors as rocking, spinning, and hand-flapping. Although the receptors for the senses are located in the peripheral nervous system, it is believed that the problem stems from neurological dysfunction in the central nervous system, i.e., the brain.

Dysfunctional sensory integration in individuals with autism may manifest itself in various ways. These are typically related to alterations within the tactile, proprioceptive, and vestibular sensory processing systems. Of particular importance to healthcare providers are disturbances within the tactile system. Light touch may be experienced as painful for certain individuals with autism and thus result in tactile defensiveness. Other issues of concern include potentially increased gag reflex and/or photosensitivity. Practitioners should be aware of these possibilities in order to appropriately accommodate such individuals in the clinic setting.

Children and adults with autism frequently experience marked alterations in the experience of pain. An individual experiencing dysfunctional tactile processing may additionally display aversion to wearing certain types of fabric, brushing teeth, getting their hands dirty or sticky; or may refuse to eat certain types of food. Problems in the vestibular system may result in either hyperactive levels of activities such as flapping, jumping, or spinning; or avoidance of motor activity with poor coordination and clumsiness. Dysfunction within the proprioceptive system may result in poor fine motor skills, odd posturing or gait, and resistance to new motor activities.

Sensory Integration Therapy is a relatively new concept involving an intensive one-on-one approach for persons with autistic sensory dysfunction. Evaluation and treatment of basic sensory integrative processes is performed by occupational therapists and/or physical therapists. The goal of therapy is to help the individual process, inhibit, and/or correctly interpret sensory input so that an organized, appropriate response can be made.

Source: Hatch-Rasmussen, Cindy. "Sensory Integration" http://www.autism.org/si.html