Sensory Processing

Dr Hans Asperger with a young patient.

Atypical sensory processing is a feature of autism. For all his professional life, Hans Asperger, pictured above with a young patient, believed that there was such a thing as an autistic brain but the technology did not exist in his lifetime for him to be able to prove it. Simon Baron-Cohen, at the Autism Research Centre in Cambridge, UK, has been researching this using functional magnetic resonance imaging. He says this: "We are using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to test the amygdala theory of autism. Our previous studies showed that the amygdala was underactive in adults with autism or Asperger Syndrome, when they were asked to decode emotional expressions from faces. Our ongoing studies are using techniques known to normally activate the amygdala (e.g. fearful faces) to further test if the amygdala can be activated in autism/AS. Additionally, we are examining aspects of social and non-social perception in terms of the underlying neural circuitry used by the normal and autistic brain. In a novel departure, we are also including children with autism or AS in the scanning studies, as young as 10 years old. Finally, we are testing for the brain basis of empathy and systemizing in the general population, and for genetic correlations with these neural and cognitive individual differences.". These non-standard forms of sensory processing can involve any of the senses, in any combination. No two autistic people appear to have the same combination.

4yo John Aczel is watching me closely by squninting his eyes. Picture: Lindsay
Daniel Schenk is trying to laugh. Picture: Wouter Schenk

You may think that 4yo John Aczel, on the left, is simply screwing his eyes up in reaction to the flash. Not so. Many photos exist of him facing the camera quite normally. He was actually watching Lindsay closely. Daniël Schenk, right, is trying to smile. While he can laugh now, he still can't smile.

James Garnett is intenselt stimulated by the camera's flash. Picture: Lindsay

Most autistic people need to space out several times each day. This means either processing sensory input or dampening sensory activity, in both cases to reduce sensory overload. James finds the camera's flash intensely stimulating, producing the blissful expression and the flap of his arms, a behaviour found only in autism and Fragile X.

Lindsay is spacing out in Sri Lanka and it wasn't the curry. Picture: Mum

In this picture, taken in Sri Lanka when Lindsay was nine, He had had a busy morning's sightseeing, had just eaten a big lunch on a very hot day and was going into sensory overload

Lindsay is avoiding looking at the camera. Picture: Mum

Much of the literature on autism mentions "apparent non-involvement". This can be for any number of reasons, mostly to do with maintaining personal comfort or security and especially to reduce sensory overload. In the picture above Lindsay either doesn't want to be photographed or he wants the photographer to go away and he is indicating this by making a show of eating, although watching the proceedings from his peripheral vision.

Shaun poncing around.

Non-standard sensory processing can produce non-standard postures. God only knows what Shaun thinks he's doing.

Anthony is holding a hand up to his ear. Picture: Lindsay

Anthony never did learn to talk properly and one reason for this could have been that he didn't hear language in a way that enabled him to reproduce it very well. Some autistic children cannot, for example, hear hard consonants so they'll say "o" for "dog". Anthony always called me Lindsay "Limmy" which was as close as he could get to saying his name. His language improved slightly when he held a hand near his ear but he also did this when he'd had a lot of aural input and was nearing overload.

Tim is the kid with every sensory stimulant to hand. Picture: Lindsay

12yo Tim is the kid with everything. It's all there, isn't it? The TV, the videos, the audio cassettes, the computer and the CDs of his choice, all to give him the multimedia stimulus he needs. While the TV plays video cartoons, Tim's watching the computer screen. Autistic paradise!!


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