The Sensory Experiences of Autistic Pupils

As part of our project we wanted to learn more about the sensory experiences of autistic children in public spaces. We linked in with a special school in London, who had a discussion about the experiences of pupils in their school. Their discussion group included a parent and teachers for both primary and secondary children.

Thank you to everyone who took part in the discussion group and for sharing your findings with us. Want to learn more about how these results link with our findings? Check out our blog post on Links between the Sensory Experiences of Autistic Children and Adults

The group reflected on how our pupils’ reactions to sensory input is not necessarily linked to hypersensitivity, but the anxiety that surrounds the unknown environment or situation.  For example, if a hand dryer goes on in the changing room unexpectedly, some children can struggle with the sound.  However, if they are given time to explore the hand dryer themselves, they may enjoy and play with the sound themselves.  Therefore, it is not the sound itself, but rather the lack of control around when the sound will happen.

The group also identified that people’s attitudes and responses play a huge role in causing or worsening episodes of dysregulation. Staff were unanimous that the public affect our pupils’ experience more than the environment itself. People produce unpredictable sensory information through speech, touch, physical closeness and more.  Therefore, educating people about how their actions may have an impact on autistic experiences is a priority.

They also shared concern with how generic adaptations to support autistic people, in particular recommendations about ‘low lighting’ and ‘low volume’ over-simplify autistic people’s experiences and does not show how people can have diverse and different reactions to the same place or event. Making changes to lighting and volumes have little impact if the staff and public are not also patient, kind and understanding. 

When reflecting on difficult times in the community, people’s strongest memories were of members of the public coming up to them and asking questions such as ‘what is wrong with them?’, ‘why are they behaving like that?’ or ‘you should get them under control’. This comments and criticism often exacerbated difficult situations and added to the stress in both staff members and pupils. It highlights how people’s attitudes and responses to sensory processing difficulties can be one of the biggest stressors in the community, especially in public spaces such as supermarkets.

Sensory experiences in public places and how they affect children’s engagement and enjoyment

Positive

  • People identified the benefit of flexible attitudes from staff at Westfield such as giving time, space for children as well as asking staff how to best support their pupils before attempting to use strategies themselves
  • Some locations such as Chelsea football stadium has a permanent sensory room with a good view of the pitch and a range of different sensory toys for pupils to choose from.  This offers a great alternative for football fans who struggle with crowds and noise.
  • Some locations have begun normalising having a variety of seating options available in community settings such as bean bags, swivel chairs, rocking chairs and yoga balls.
  • Jump the queue options in venues are fantastic as waiting is very difficult for our pupils unless they have plenty of motivators

Negative

  • Pupils can be overloaded in public spaces by the quantity of social information they are required to process
  • Unexpected loud sounds and crowds of people in public spaces can induce panic and cause children to be overwhelmed
  • Difficulties with interoception (awareness of our own body’s state) can lead to pupils forming negative relationships to spaces.  For example, one pupil in school really enjoys soft play, but after overheating in the room once, she now associates this pain with the room and will not enter.  Some children can struggle to detach the physical experience in the space from the space itself.
  • Responses that can occur when pupils are overloaded can include self-injurious behaviour, violence, shouting, damaging environment, sadness, withdrawal etc.  It is usually the way that these are managed by the surrounding people which can lead to these becoming traumatic episodes.  The memory associated with this can then create a barrier for them when trying to re-engage with community settings in the future.
  • The timings and dates of relaxed performances such as at the theatre or cinema are often very difficult for families to attend
  • The placement of sensory rooms can often be impractical. For example, the sensory room at Warner Bros. Studio Tour London is in the middle of the space and poorly signposted.  Pupils have to walk through 50% of the entire exhibition before finding it.

Guest Post by: Elise Robinson, Creative Arts Lead at The Queensmill Trust

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