A young boy wears headphones and looks at an iPad.
11 Apr

Sensory sensitivities in young autistic children

The world around us is filled with sensory information, which no two people will process the same way. Some of us might be more sensitive to certain stimuli, such as loud noises, while others may be less sensitive to certain sensations, like heat or cold. 

For people on the autism spectrum, sensory sensitivites are extremely common, and will have more widespread, intense and long lasting impacts on their ability to function and interact with the world. Whether that’s being undersensitive, oversensitive or a combination of both, autistic people require individualised support around these sensitivities, particularly in their early years. With proactive and informed assistance from their early educators, children with autism can thrive in early learning settings while navigating sensory stimuli in a way that is physically and psychologically safe. 

In this post, we’ll discuss what sensory sensitivities are and how they can impact young autistic children in an early education setting. We’ll then share how early educators can create environments and learning experiences that prevent sensory overload and enable autistic children to fully participate in their learning.

  • What are sensory sensitivities?
  • How do sensory sensitivities impact autistic children?
  • How can educators support autistic children with sensory sensitivities?
  • Further support

What are sensory sensitivities?

Imagine a world where every indoor lamp feels like a blinding light. Or, a world where every sound feels like it’s coming from miles away. For some people, particularly those on the autism spectrum, this is their reality. 

We can all find certain sensory stimuli overwhelming at times, particularly if we’re feeling stressed. For example, being in a room with lots of conversations happening at once can make it difficult for us to focus on something that requires a lot of concentration. 

People that experience sensory sensitivities can be impacted much more deeply by certain sensory information than others, or will process this information completely differently to anyone else. Their senses might take in too much input from the environment around them, which subsequently makes them feel overwhelmed. This is referred to as oversensitivity, or hypersensitivity. 

A person that experiences oversensitivity might engage in sensory avoiding behaviours. They might cover their ears when loud music plays, or refuse to wear clothing made from certain materials. In some cases, they may experience a meltdown or shutdown as a result of sensory overload, which prevents them from functioning and can pose risks to their safety and the safety of others. 

Meltdowns aren’t just big emotional outbursts or tantrums; they’re complete shutdowns in which a person cannot control their behaviour. Knowing how to safely support an autistic child experiencing a meltdown is crucial as an early educator, which ‘Navigating Autism: The Early Years’ covers for free.

However, sensory sensitivities can also present as under sensitivity to certain stimuli, sometimes also referred to as hyposensitivity. A person’s senses may take in too little information about the environment around them, which can cause them to feel under-stimulated and engage in sensory seeking behaviour. They might love tight hugs, listening to loud music and engaging in dynamic activities such as jumping on a trampoline for hours on end.

Sometimes, sensory sensitivities can impact an individual’s safety. For example, a child that is undersensitive to temperature may touch a hot surface if they’re seeking warmth. If a child in your care is engaging in sensory seeking or sensory avoiding behaviours that pose risks to their safety or the safety of others, this must be addressed straight away. 

Sensory sensitivities don’t just impact people with autism; they can also affect people with other conditions, such as ADHD or anxiety. However, they are extremely common among autistic people, who require individualised support in order to prevent these sensitivities from impacting their ability to learn and participate. Children with autism don’t ‘outgrow’ their sensory sensitivities, rather, must learn to manage them with the support of their families and those that care for them.

How do sensory sensitivities impact autistic children?

People on the autism spectrum are often affected by sensory stimuli in their environment differently than neurotypical people. Although autistic people don’t ‘outgrow’ these sensitivities as they get older, their severity can change over time and in different circumstances (for example, they may be more sensitive to noise if they are feeling anxious). It’s also important to note that not every autistic person will process and respond to sensory information the same way. 

For early educators, understanding sensory sensitivities and how to accommodate them doesn’t just help the autistic child, but makes their job easier, too. When children with autism are well supported, their peers and educators will thrive, which then has positive impacts on families and the broader community. 

How do educators support autistic children with sensory sensitivities?

In early education, children develop skills and knowledge that serve them throughout their lives. It’s vital that every child has the opportunity to learn, grow and develop alongside their peers in an educational environment that celebrates their strengths and recognises their support needs. 

Educators are crucial to providing this safe and supportive learning environment, and successfully creating this space requires an understanding of sensory sensitivities. Here are some steps you can take as an educator to better understand and accommodate an autistic child to ensure they can actively participate in learning:

Understand the child

No two autistic children will have the same sensitivities, so it’s vital to take an individualised approach. By understanding a child’s unique strengths and needs, you’ll be able to tailor your environments, educational experiences and engagement strategies to best support them. 

When trying to better understand a child’s sensory sensitivities, it’s helpful to observe them in their usual environments and routines, asking yourself the following questions:


  • Does the child cover their eyes or retreat from environments with bright lights, bright colours or a lot of visual stimuli?


  • Have you observed the child covering their ears in noisy environments or trying to escape them? Or, have you observed the child standing close to loud sounds (e.g., a speaker) or making loud noises themselves?


  • Do certain textures or materials make the child uncomfortable, upset or angry (e.g. certain clothing materials)? Or, do certain textures make them feel comfortable (e.g., pushing their hands into sand, relaxing under the pressure of a weighted blanket or toy)?


  • Do certain smells make the child upset, either consciously or subconsciously (e.g., the smell of cleaning products if a table has been wiped down)?


  • Are there certain foods that the child strongly dislikes, avoids or is upset by? Does the child eat the same food or foods everyday? Does the child become upset if a meal they like looks or is prepared in a different way?

Communicate with the child's family

Sometimes, a child’s family may have already made these observations about their child, and can share these insights with you. You should also be sharing your observations with the family to see if there are any similarities or differences between their behaviour in your centre and at home.

Some autistic children may be receiving support from health professionals as part of their early intervention. This support will often have a focus on addressing sensory sensitivities, particularly if the child is working with an occupational therapist or speech pathologist. If a family shares that their child is receiving support from a therapist or therapy team, it’s worth asking them if their therapist/s can share any information and strategies with you to assist the support you deliver.

Understanding the role of different therapists in an autistic child’s development and how you can engage with them as an educator takes time. ‘Navigating Autism: The Early Years’ provides free and evidence-based guidance around working with a child’s family and therapy team from other educators with firsthand experience. Learn more here.

Adapt the environment and create accommodations

Once you better understand an autistic child’s sensory sensitivities and have communicated these with their family, it’s time to make the necessary adjustments to policies, programs and procedures in your centre.

Here are some ways you can adapt an early learning environment to accommodate for sensory sensitivities:


  • Use dimmable lights or create a dedicated space with less light for children to retreat to if needed
  • Have sunglasses available for children to block out bright lights that can’t be dimmed or removed or to wear on sunny days when playing outside


  • Create a dedicated ‘quiet space’ that a child can retreat to if they need a break from loud noises or are beginning to feel overwhelmed. This doesn’t need to be separate to the classroom, just an area the child can be taken to or take themselves to for some quiet time
  • Have earplugs or over-ear headphones for children to wear that are very sensitive to sounds


  • Find toys the child enjoys and have these readily available (e.g., playdough, squishy balls, sand, bubbles). Find toys that are made of materials that comfort the child (e.g., soft toys made of velvety materials)
  • Have weighted toys and blankets accessible to children who crave the feeling of weight or pressure on their body, allowing them to seek out that experience safely. Provide objects that allow children to safely engage with different temperatures (e.g., a heat pack/ice pack they can squeeze, an icy pole to eat)


  • Be conscious of smells that could upset or distract the child and avoid using these in common areas (e.g., cleaning products, perfumes, air fresheners)
  • If there is no suitable alternative to scented products, try to use them when the child is outside or well before they arrive, allowing plenty of fresh air into indoor spaces to reduce smells


  • Provide food alternatives so the child can eat regularly and participate in meal times alongside their peers. This might involve different food being prepared for the child, or the family packing meals for the child to bring
  • Never force a child to eat or drink something that they are sensitive to. This almost always makes that child incredibly reluctant to try that food/drink again, and can cause regression with other eating and food habits.

When making any adjustments to a child’s routine or environment, it’s helpful that you consult with the child’s family first, allowing them to flag any potential issues that could arise before you encounter them. Providing feedback to the family about how their child is responding to different accommodations will also increase their confidence and ability to reinforce this support at home. 

Autistic children thrive when routines are fixed and predictable, meaning any changes that occur to their routine or environment should be gradual. Communicate these changes to the child in a way they understand (e.g., visual schedules, social stories) well before the changes occur to reduce their anxiety.

Providing regular breaks to autistic children to rest and recover is vital, particularly during periods of change and transition. If a child has responded well to an adaptation, or is feeling dysregulated and overwhelmed, it’s crucial they are given the opportunity to rest and recover to prevent a meltdown or burnout.

Further support

Sensory sensitivities are complex, and supporting a child with autism that experiences them can be complex, too. It’s important to remember that supporting an autistic child requires constant reflection and changes to your support. Just because you may not have taken the right approach the first time, doesn’t mean you won’t be able to support that child; it might just take more time and patience.

For early educators, finding the time and resources to better understand sensory sensitivities and autism is no easy task. That’s where ‘Navigating Autism: The Early Years’ comes in. 

A free online course made in collaboration with industry-leading educators and clinicians, this program is made by and for early educators at every age, stage and in every setting. It covers everything an educator wants and needs to know in short videos alongside downloadable resources you can display in your room or distribute in your centre. From autism-specific information to ways to prioritise your own wellbeing, this course contains a wealth of information accessible anytime, anywhere. And best of all, it’s designed for self-directed learning, so you can complete each module whenever and however you like! 

To learn more about ‘Navigating Autism: The Early Years’ and enrol for free, you can click here.

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