Sensory Issues and Autism in the Classroom

a conference presented by “Inclusive Solutions” 

Notes taken by Elaine Padden (Nottinghamshire parent of child with autism)


The short film “A is for Autism”, made by autistic people, shows that sensitivities vary between autistic individuals just as they do for the rest of us.  They also tend to be very specific in nature.  Some people are hyper- or hypo- sensitive to some sounds while reacting normally to others, for example.  

Low sensitivities can cause some safety issues to arise, as when people are not aware of dangers that others notice relatively easily. The super-sensitivities are a source of various experiences, potentially leading to feelings of anxiety and discomfort or of fun and pleasure. 


Fundamental working principles

1. Allow time for the other person to explain as best they can (or for you to decipher as best you can) what is happening for them.

2. Respect individuality: do this by getting to know the person and not just the character of their diagnosis.



Penchant for detail, accuracy etc. may affect a number of classroom experiences:

– how schoolwork is presented (e.g. preference for discrete lettering rather than cursive writing)

– ability to identify people (e.g. using markers such as what they wear rather than facial features)



Obsessional/repetitive/”problem” behaviours provide clues. 

Some are a response to anxiety building up during sensory over-stimulation (e.g. shuffling feet or spinning pencil to cut out the discomfort of a noisy room).

Some are a response to pleasure associated with a particular sensitivity (e.g. comforted by a favourite oil can, or enjoying hearing a specific phrase in answer to a particular question).

Emotional sensitivities may also be observed in this way, these may seem very different from those of the other pupils in the class. 



“Normal” reactions to “can’t stand it” situations look very like autistic “problem behaviours”, so they are probably very deeply embedded in the subconscious.

feelings -> behaviours   

*overwhelmed -> unable to concentrate on anything else 

*desperation “will it ever stop” -> will act selfishly/violently to stop it

*panic -> may suffer panic attack

*nausea/extreme discomfort/pain -> trying to escape

*buildup of anxiety -> impatience, rudeness, voicing opinion strongly

“Unacceptable” behaviours may occur also as genuine misbehaviour also, but be careful not to assume anything.



It helps to think of the expression of autism in the person as having a likeness to an iceberg: the small part “above water” that can be measured by diagnostic criteria being the Triad of Impairments as listed in professional documents.

The larger part of the iceberg represents the rest of the person’s autism. These features, hidden “under water”:

– can not be fully described within a diagnosis

– are fundamentally internal in origin, so not immediately apparent

– can not be removed or altered by the person having the characteristics.

The “hidden” traits: 

(A)  Super-sensitivity /hypo-sensitivity profile: Visual/Auditory/Smell/Taste/Emotional/other?

(B)  Movement differences

(C)  Anxiety from external/internal stimuli

Each of these has an impact on the classroom situation.



In a classroom, negative cycles can evolve easily, e.g.

Loud room ­-> fingers in ears ->shouting teacher <->fingers fixed in ears!

Very “autistic” behaviour is a sign of anxiety having progressed to a dangerous level that will ultimately produce a state of “shutdown” if it continues.  It is a clue that the child is currently not able to absorb information or communicate effectively.  

A positive course of action at this time will always focus on removing the environmental cause of the anxiety, and incorporate future accommodation for the sensitivity which has been revealed by the situation.

Positive cycles can be developed also, by using sensory incentives to set behaviour patterns that are desirable in some way.  Everybody appreciates an opportunity to enjoy being themselves!

Emotional Sensitivity 

Love and Fear are the main human driving forces.  Each person has a set of emotional sensitivities of their own.  Autistic people may invest some emotional energy in things you would find uninteresting, and vice versa.  Expression of these sensitivities can be through behaviour, mood, anxiety level, and boredom as well as particular abilities or creativity.  

Emotions can be “collected” from other people also, and sometimes misinterpreted on the way.  Also the intensity of the autistic person’s feelings is not easy for them to express accurately and they can “over-egg” things unwittingly. Their emotional state may be guessed at more accurately using their behavioural clues as a guide.

Accommodating to Supersensitivities

A number of options are listed here in preferential order: 

> change the environment so the child’s “coping mechanism” is not required, thus avoiding the undesirable behaviour

> compensate.  This is providing a suitable way to delete the stress factor in the situation (e.g. in some scenarios a noise-sensitive child may require earmuffs)

> get away from the environment into a “safe zone” where child can relax more.

> with sound sensitivity it has been shown that it is possible for some individuals to become acclimatised to stimuli using methods similar to the Tinnitis Programme offered to sufferers of tinnitis on the NHS.



Planning activities for a class with an autistic child can be difficult because of the movement differences that exist.  In addition to a tendency to poor gross motor co-ordination, poor spatial awareness, poor muscle tone, and a certain kind of rigidity in the body, participation in activities can be hampered by difficulties in:

– starting

– stopping

– executing – speed

– intensity

– rhythm

– timing

– direction

– duration

– combining

– switching



Anxiety is an internal experience that manifests itself in external behaviours.  There is a clearly defined pattern of stages leading from low to high anxiety.  To identify the level of anxiety being experienced, it is essential to “read” the behavioural signals correctly.

Sensory input of an unpleasant nature for the pupil causes progression to the next level of anxiety.  Reversing the process is difficult but is achieved by sensory accommodation, and the benefits to both pupil and teacher are significant.

Low Anxiety:  a state sometimes reached if there is minimal

stimulation in the environment, or if the person is ill enough to have little interest in anything. 

Build-up: this is the state in which autistic people mostly live when they are coping well.

Survival Mode:   coping behaviours become apparent.  In this state no

learning will take place, all the focus will be on coping with the environment. 

Shutdown: This is a danger zone.  Superficially the child appears calm, but this is not because coping mechanisms have solved the problem.  Instead the child has withdrawn into his internal world and shut out external stimuli.  In this state, people may be at their most creative, because the energy used to focus on repetitive behaviours during Survival Mode needs an outlet.  It is necessary to ensure people are brought back from Shutdown, because while in it they are oblivious to external sources of danger, much like people with hypo-sensitivities.  Also they are at risk of progressing to Meltdown if sensory accomodation does not occur. 

Meltdown: Not calm! A complete disintegration of the situation,

usually with violent outburst of “blind fury”. 



It is possible to prevent someone reaching Shutdown once the clues displayed in Survival Mode have been observed and understood.  It is also possible to call someone back from Shutdown, though this takes a great deal of time and patience, and a degree of guesswork.

Accomodation of the sensitivities that are affected is the way to recover control for both child and teacher.  The deeper the anxiety has embedded, the more accommodations will be necessary.  

Caution: It is important not to directly try preventing or suppressing the coping behaviours that emerge during Survival Mode.  This is because doing so adds to the anxiety experienced by the affected person and speeds the progression towards Shutdown.  

A practical way to help people avoid the majority of these situations is a personal profile of the autistic person which includes information regarding sensory likes and dislikes and some of the behavioural coping mechanisms which can be used as clues.  It is of course best if the autistic person themselves is responsible for the content of such a booklet. 



“You’re going to love this kid’’ by Paula Kluth 2003 Published by Jessica Kingsley – a book for teachers

“All About Me” – an example of a personal profile, available at

‘Movement Differences and Diversity in Autism’ by Anne Donnellan and Martha Leary 1995, available via

Using specialist equipment to provide positive sensory experiences in education: Catalogues

Rompa 0800 0562323

Space-Craft 01299 878360

HOPE 08451 202055

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