Autistic People Feel “Too Much,” But Can Therapy Actually Help?

In an effort to help autistic individuals with “sensory dysfunction,” occupational therapists, teachers of autistic students and others have often used a treatment called “sensory integration therapy.” Using a number of items — large bouncy balls, weighted vests, weighted blankets, putty with different scents or textures and a lot of other stuff (there are companies selling all sorts of such “sensory stimuli”) — therapists seek to integrate a child’s “disordered,” differently-functioning sensory system.

Some families, like that of now 18-year-old Woody Sims of Colorado, have found sensory integration therapy to be a lifesaver. Diagnosed with sensory processing disorder (SPD) at the age of 4, Woody recalls (as he tells ABC) that was so “over-stimulated” that he had “deep fears of loud noises, cooked carrots and handwriting.”†Sensory-based therapies helped him with his coordination and to learn to manage with environments that had seemed “harsh and jarring.”

Beth Arky of the New York-based Child Mind Institute describes specialized gyms and listening programs (involving hearing specially designed CDs) †that, under the supervision of occupational therapists and others, have helped a number of children with SPD, autism and other neurological challenges thrive.

Sensory Integration Therapy Questioned

A new†study in the journal†Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders has found, after a review of 25 different studies, that†sensory integration therapy is not scientifically supported. As researcher†Mark OíReilly of the University of Texas at Austin,†says, “Rigorous, methodologically sound studies do not indicate that it helps and, in fact, the majority of studies that were reviewed reported no benefits for children with ASD.”

The†American Academy of Pediatrics had previously issued a†statement that, while not advising against the popular treatment, asserted that “the amount of research regarding the effectiveness of sensory integration therapy is limited and inconclusive.”†As Arky writes, “there is†much debate over the claim that [sensory integration] can change a child’s ‘wiring,’ or long-term sensory responses.”

Much of the evidence for the effectiveness of sensory integration therapy is anecdotal. Our teenage autistic†son Charlie, who indeed has many sensory sensitivities including hypersensitive hearing and a highly attuned sense of touch, has not seemed to benefit too much from sensory integration treatments. Some he has tried include wearing weighted vests and weights on his shoes, being brushed with special brushes, having orange scent wafted around him and being placed in a lycra “body sock.”

Sensory Dysfunction Is †Real

The effectiveness of sensory integration therapy is debatable, but there is no question that Charlie and many on the autism spectrum have highly sensitive sensory systems and hear and smell and feel all sorts of sensations as painfully as some experience fingernails on a chalkboard. Charlie and many others†experience “sensory overload” in which many senses are confused together or in which one sense is experienced with deep intensity.

Indeed — in sharp contrast to how it was originally defined — autism is now often spoken about as a condition involving individuals “sensing too much” as†Andrew Sullivan writes in discussing an†animated video by Miguel Jiron†at New York’s Imagine Science Film Festival.†As Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg, who is herself on the autism spectrum says, her sensory sensitivity extends to sensing other people’s emotions: “I can walk into a room and feel all the emotional energy in the room, but it’s completely undifferentiated,” she says.

Autism, far from being a mental health disorder in which individuals were seen as withdrawing into themselves in large part due to bad “refrigerator parents” who were so emotionally “frigid” they failed to bond with their children, can rather be seen as all about feeling†too much. Understanding that Cohen-Rottenberg, Charlie and many others struggle every day and, potentially, every moment, with sensory overload can go a long way to explaining why someone on the spectrum might take many minutes (at least) to respond to a question, or need to go and sit away from a chattering crowd.

There may be no “cure” for sensory overload, just as there is no cure for autism. But understanding what it is like to experience what it is to “sense too much” can go a very long way in helping those like Charlie who experience the world so very differently.


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Photo from Thinkstock


Jenkins Malcom
Jenkins Malcom3 years ago

great indeed

June Bostock
June Bostock4 years ago


Fi T.
Past Member 4 years ago

Only if respect is there

Lisa Sears
Lisa Sears4 years ago

Oh, let's hope and pray some sort of treatment will help those overly-sensitive to stimulation, such as those with autism or Asperger's. Thanks for the information.

Mary L.
Mary L5 years ago

I have to wonder if this is like desensitization for phobics.

Leia P.
Leia P.5 years ago

it has always helped me

C. Kershner
C. Kershner5 years ago

Aubrae, just wondering what you mean by therapy? Are you talking about mental health therapy or Occupational/Sensory Integration Therapy? These are 2 different things. Yes Antidepressants can assist in calming the emotional overload that can occur with sensory overload, but because this issue has to do with the brain and neurological system the antidepressant doesn't change how a person feels or how intensely they feel it.
I myself have had oral defensiveness as well as developed auditory sensitivities, and yes I take antidepressants but not for these issues.

One thing that might help some people understand high sensitivitity is a book call "Highly Sensitive People" by Elaine Aron (I think). We all have sensitivities. It is how we deal with them within our daily lives that matters and for those where this is highly challenging (Sensory Processing Disorder) ,Sensory techniques can "help". They do not "cure".

Celine R.
.5 years ago

Thanks for sharing! ^_^

Aubrae F.
Brae F5 years ago

I know I feel "too much" when I feel sad I feel overwhelmed with sorrow, when I eat the taste is overpowering, when I smell the sensation is too much and when I love it hurts my stomach....yes it is real. I don't believe therapy can help but some anti-depressants can help.

Nirvana Jaganath
Nirvana Jaganath5 years ago