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"... the most important considerations in devising educational programs for children with autistic spectrum disorders have to do with recognition of the autism spectrum as a whole, with the concomitant implications for social, communicative, and behavioral development and learning, and with the understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the individual child across areas of development."
—Educating Children with Autism2001

Understanding Autism
Understanding Physical Differences

Sensory Processing

We each perceive the world a bit differently. A noise that may be inaudible to you may be a buzzing distraction to someone else. People with autism perceive the world differently too, but with a significantly greater difference. What may feel like a gentle handshake to you, may feel like an excruciating squeeze to someone with autism.

In general, people with autism are extremely sensitive and may over- or underreact to sights, sounds, textures, tastes, and/or smells so that they feel overwhelmed and stressed and may have difficulty functioning in the environment.
  • May be bothered by classroom fluorescent lights or the brightness of the sun
    • May squint, avoid outdoor activities
    • May keep her head down on the desk
    • May shield eyes or keep them closed
    • May complain of being tired as a result of eye strain
  • May be terrified by the sound of bells, fire alarms, sirens, or unusual noises
    • May scream or cry at the sound
    • May be frozen—unable to react or respond
    • May panic and run
    • May throw things or physically lash out
  • May be unsettled and irritated by background noise or conversations
    • May scream or yell to get others to stop the noise or to attract an adult’s attention to the problem
    • May cause an increase in anxiety that will affect tasks long after the situation
    • May not be able to concentrate or complete tasks
  • May be unsettled and irritated by the acoustics in large rooms such as gymnasiums and cafeterias
    • May scream or yell
    • May act in a manner that will ensure she will be removed from the situation
  • May be unable to wear certain fabrics or clothes or may need tags removed from clothes, because of the feel on her skin
    • May scratch and fidget
    • May pull at necklines
    • May refuse to wear certain clothing items
    • May insist on wearing a few preferred items
  • May strongly avoid touching certain texture (glue or sticky objects, furry objects)
    • May not participate in art or cooking projects
  • May enjoy walking across pebbles, rocks or other objects that would be uncomfortable to others
    • May be driven to explore or play in areas that might otherwise by off-limits
  • May seek physical contact by hugging, jumping, rubbing, and/or bumping into people or things
    • May inappropriately hug peers, or run into them as part of playing (not in anger)
  • May be averse to light touch such as tickling, or a pat on the back or head
    • May pull away
    • May rub area of contact
    • May yell or scream
  • May enjoy pressure supplied by hats, blankets, or massage
    • May wear tight clothing
    • May wear clothing inappropriate to the season
  • May avoid certain types of movement such as swinging or being elevated above the ground
  • May avoid foods because of the smell, taste, or texture
    • May not be able to describe why; only says “I don’t like it.”
  • May crave certain foods because of texture (chewy foods, smooth foods)
    • May eat the same few foods every day
  • May eat or lick non-edibles such as sand because of texture
  • May be overwhelmed or nauseated by the smell of food in a cafeteria
    • May complain of feeling sick
    • May take time to recover (afternoon classes might be impacted)
  • May be nauseated by the smells of cleaning solutions, paint, glue, perfume, gym locker rooms
    • May avoid cleaning tasks
  • May over- or underreact to pain or temperature
    • May not acknowledge fever or pain from an ear infection
    • May appear grumpy, irritable, sleepy
    • May be unaware he has hurt himself, or cries because of a minor injury
    • Broken or fractured bones may not be identified immediately
    • May complain when others bump into her, or scream in pain
    • May be distracted and unable to focus because of minor aches or pain
    • May be unaware when walking across sharp objects
  • May crave or have an aversion to certain types of movement
    • May flap hands repetitively
    • Cravings may appear especially in times of intense emotions (happy, anxious)
  • May appear compelled to jump, swing, spin, or move
    • May appear hyperactive or “driven by a motor”
    • May perform the action regardless of appropriateness in setting
    • May not be able to attend or respond to others while doing the action
  • May rock or move while reading because the movement helps him focus
    • May rock backwards on the legs of the chair
    • May squirm or fidget

Improving the educational experiences and outcomes of students on the autism spectrum in grades K-12

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