The Autism Blog

Movement and Sensory Overload

May 30, 2016

Welcome to the May edition of Ask Dr. Emily! We often receive questions that we want to share with all our readers. To help with this, Dr. Emily Rastall, a clinical psychologist at Seattle Children’s Autism Center, will share insights here, on the last Friday of each month, in a question and answer format. We welcome you to send us your questions and Dr. Rastall will do her best to answer them each month.

I have two neighbors and a nephew with autism. Something I see all three of them do is walk—A LOT. For example, they might pace or go for walks up and down the driveway, hallway, around the block, etc. Does walking help self-regulate or is it because they are bored?

Individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often have a need to move their bodies. This “need to move” could be explained by a number of things. First, the “autism brain” is often, by nature, an active one. As a result, you might see squirmy, fidgety, and/or restless behaviors. Second, individuals with autism may present with what are called “stereotyped motor patterns,” or more simply put, repetitive body movements. This might look like pacing, rocking, flapping hands, jumping, spinning. Given the “autism brain’s” tendency toward movement, walking or pacing can be soothing to the system. We might think of it as “releasing steam.”

My 3 year old son has autism and he just started school. As soon as we get there he covers his ears and sometimes hums also while covering his ears. He has also started to resist getting his diaper changed. I am wondering why he does these things and if this has anything to do with him starting school about 3 weeks ago.

It is not uncommon for kids (typically developing or otherwise) to present with new behaviors (or old behaviors that have disappeared, but come back) when going through significant transitions, such as starting school. They might have a hard time with things that have previously been easy. Kids going through large transitions may also be more tired, so tolerating even the simplest things (like diaper changes) can be challenging. During large transitions, kids can benefit from  sticking to routines at home, getting plenty of rest, and getting extra  child-directed play time with their parents or caretakers.

Specific to kids diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, new environments can present as overwhelming to the senses. For example, the background noises of the classroom may be loud enough that it prompts kids to cover their ears. Humming may be working to drown out those noises even further. Kids with auditory sensitivities often benefit from noise reducing efforts, such as headphones or a quiet place to rest or recuperate.