Self-regulation is a person’s ability to adjust to environmental stimuli such as tactile, auditory, visual and oral input in a way that integrates them into their surroundings fostering productive interaction with the people and things in it. For most of us, this process is rather seamless. We enter a venue, public or private, and our brain assimilates us into the surroundings with such speedy accuracy that we do not realize the complex neural process it takes for us to be able to interact with whatever and whoever is around us. To most of us, we just walked into a room, or we are just listening to music as we go about our day; or, we just eat.
For a child with autism, regulating to his or her environment is not as seamless. It is very intentional. This is due to a common sub-complication of autism called a sensory processing disorder. This means that there is a breakdown in the neural net that helps the child to integrate into and interact with their environment in what the rest of us would consider ‘conventional and seamless’.
Now, let me pause for a moment and say that a child can have a sensory processing disorder without being autistic; however, a child with autism almost always has a sensory processing disorder. Autism and a sensory processing disorder are common bedfellows.
Let us go through the four major areas where your child’s sensory processing disorder can manifest itself. They are touch, taste, hearing and seeing. I suppose it can happen in the area of smell; but, one does not hear or read about that as often. Though, an autistic child will use smell to help self-regulate to their surroundings. Our son Andy always seemed like he was going to put play dough in his mouth every time we gave it to him; but, he was not. Instead, he would bring it up to his face right under his nose so he could smell it without ever taking a bite; and, we had to train people who interacted with him to relax. He is not going to eat the play dough!
Let us go through the other four senses: