By: Jeff Sabo
Sensory processing is an essential part of our everyday lives. At each moment, our brain is trying to make sense of what is happening both inside and outside our body (1). It is constantly taking in information from our senses to make a meaningful picture of ourselves and the world around us (2). This helps us regulate our bodies, meet our basic needs, and relate to others (3). We all process sensory information in somewhat different ways (4), but some people have more exaggerated differences that can impact how they think, learn, and interact with their environment (5).
These more extreme sensory processing differences often occur for people with a number of diagnoses, but they are most commonly associated with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) (6; 7). In ASD, sensory processing differences tend to show up early in life (8). They may change over the course of a person’s development, and they are thought to have an effect on how that development progresses (9; 10). You can check out our free webinar [link] for a general overview of sensory processing in music education. Here, we’ll focus on the research related to three key aspects of sensory processing in ASD: cognition, social activity, and behaviour. For all three, sensory processing differences are not always problematic, and they can even be beneficial in some situations (8). As music teachers, the important thing is to know how they affect our students as individuals so we can adapt our lessons accordingly.
Cognition: The way we perceive things has a big effect on how we think about them and understand them (11). Our nervous system takes in A LOT of information at any given moment, so our brain needs to regulate it, and then determine what is useful and what is not in a particular situation (5). For many people with ASD, these processes can work in unique ways that affect their thinking and learning. For example, they may feel certain sensations very strongly (10), like a smell in the room or an itch on their leg. Others might go entirely unnoticed, even if they are a central part of the learning activity (12). Their brain may also struggle to filter information, which could leave them overwhelmed by many sensations and unable to ignore ones that are irrelevant (13). Even if they are able to perceive something, they just might not be able to pay attention to it easily (14). All of these aspects of sensory processing can make it hard for students with ASD to focus on learning and maintain that focus over long periods of time (15).
Some aspects of ASD sensory processing can be useful. Generally, people with ASD are able to perceive fine-level details of an object very well, like the colour of a picture or the pitch of a sound (8). This can be really helpful in some parts of music learning, like pitch perception (link to R2P blog), but it can also have some drawbacks. For example, they may have trouble taking in the “big picture” aspects of more complex objects, which help us make meaning and may be important in a particular task (8). One reason for this may be that some people with ASD can struggle to process incoming information very quickly, particularly if it is new or complex (16). This may be especially true when they have to integrate information from multiple senses (14). In music lessons, for instance, it may be challenging for an ASD student to process the constantly changing information of the notes on the page, the sounds from the instrument, and the feeling of their body playing all at the same time. They can also have trouble imitating movements, which requires connecting what they see to the position and movement of their body (17).
Social activity: A lot of what we just mentioned can also impact how people with ASD relate to others (13). Most of us communicate every day by using words, gestures, and subtle cues without much thought. All of this requires us to process a lot of information and know how to respond very quickly. For people with ASD, sensory processing differences can make this a challenge. In order to understand speech, we may have to filter out other sounds in the room and focus on the voice of the person speaking to us (18). To make sense of that information, we often need to integrate it with what we see: their eyes, their face, or any other part of their body (14). This all happens very quickly, so people with ASD who process information more slowly may find it hard to understand communication that is too fast or complicated (14). They may also struggle to pick up on subtle social cues, like sarcasm, or to read other people’s emotions (19).
Communication is essential for teaching and learning, so it’s important for music teachers to understand how sensory differences can affect it. For instance, if a student isn’t understanding what you’re trying to communicate, consider the words or phrases you’re using, the length of your sentences, or how fast you’re talking. What nonverbal ways are you conveying information that may not be clear to them? Many students with ASD learn best when given concise, explicit language. Some students may take instruction better when you use visual cues, like pointing or demonstration, while others may have a hard time understanding what they mean. It’s important for teachers to understand what communication styles help each ASD student learn best.
Behaviour: Sensory processing doesn’t just affect what we think or understand. It also affects what we do (18). We’ve discussed the connection between sensory processing and behaviour more deeply in our Decoding Behaviour mini-couse (link), but let’s cover some important points from the research here.
Chances are that you know how uncomfortable it can be in a place that’s too loud, too bright, or has that awful smell you just can’t ignore. Whatever your response, the information you take in will affect how you feel and act. Many people with ASD are hypersensitive in at least one of their senses, so they can have this experience far more often and more intensely than the average person (5). When that happens, they may do things like cover their ears, try to leave, or even become aggressive (15) They may also just stop paying attention to avoid getting overwhelmed (13). People with ASD can also be “hypo”, or under-sensitive in at least one sense (10). That means they may need more stimulation than the average person in order to reach their “optimal zone” (link to blog article) (20). Behaviours like grabbing objects or making noise can all be a student’s way of trying to get the sensory input they need (12). Because the everyday world is often very complex and fast-paced, problems with filtering sensory information can also make it hard for people with ASD to predict what is going to happen in unfamiliar situations (14). may lead the student to become anxious, frustrated, or seek out repetition and certainty (12).
Any behavioural response to a sensory need can be particularly strong for people with ASD if they have trouble regulating their emotions or actions (18). This can happen with negative emotions like anxiety of frustration, and also positive ones like excitement (21). Many of the behaviours we’ve mentioned here can be seen as “disruptive” or “problematic” in music lessons. As teachers, it’s important to consider if a particular behaviour is connected to sensory processing. For example, a student who regularly seems irritable, distracted, or low energy may just be responding to uncomfortable sensations (22). Looking at a student’s behaviour through the lens of sensory processing can help teachers adapt the environment and activities in a way that suits the student’s individual needs.
Final thoughts: In sum, there are a TON of ways that sensory processing can come into play during our lessons with ASD students. It’s important to remember that ASD is a diverse diagnosis, so each student will have their own sensory characteristics. Once we get to know them as individuals, we can determine how to use this information to set them up for success!
If you want to learn more about sensory needs and adapting your music teaching to them, check out these other materials:
Setting up Your Sensory Friendly Home Studio: https://lotuscentre.net/setting-up-your-sensory-friendly-home-studio/
When Activities are Too Much: https://lotuscentre.net/when-activities-are-too-much-responding-to-sensory-needs/
Creating a Sensor Friendly Music Studio: https://www.institute.lotuscentre.net/course/creating-a-sensory-friendly-music-studio
Decoding Behaviour in Music Education: https://www.institute.lotuscentre.net/course/empathy-based-behaviour-support-in-the-music-studio
We also do a deep dive into sensory processing in our Certification Courses! You can find those here: https://www.institute.lotuscentre.net/intensives
- Quigley, K. S., Kanoski, S., Grill, W. M., Barrett, L. F., & Tsakiris, M. (2021). Functions of Interoception: From Energy Regulation to Experience of the Self. Trends in Neurosciences, 44(1), 29–38. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tins.2020.09.008
- Kilroy, E., Aziz-Zadeh, L., & Cermak, S. (2019). Ayres Theories of Autism and Sensory Integration Revisited: What Contemporary Neuroscience Has to Say. Brain Sciences, 9(3), 68. https://doi.org/10.3390/brainsci9030068
- Case-Smith, J., Weaver, L. L., & Fristad, M. A. (2015). A systematic review of sensory processing interventions for children with autism spectrum disorders. Autism, 19(2), 133–148. https://doi.org/10.1177/1362361313517762
- Marhenke, R., Acevedo, B., Sachse, P., & Martini, M. (2023). Individual differences in sensory processing sensitivity amplify effects of post-learning activity for better and for worse. Scientific Reports, 13(1), 4451. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-023-31192-9
- Cheung, P. P. P., & Lau, B. W. M. (2020). Neurobiology of sensory processing in autism spectrum disorder. In Progress in Molecular Biology and Translational Science (Vol. 173, pp. 161–181). Elsevier. https://doi.org/10.1016/bs.pmbts.2020.04.020
- Uljarević, M., Baranek, G., Vivanti, G., Hedley, D., Hudry, K., & Lane, A. (2017). Heterogeneity of sensory features in autism spectrum disorder: Challenges and perspectives for future research: Sensory features in autism. Autism Research, 10(5), 703–710. https://doi.org/10.1002/aur.1747
- Critz, C., Blake, K., & Nogueira, E. (2015). Sensory Processing Challenges in Children. The Journal for Nurse Practitioners, 11(7), 710–716. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.nurpra.2015.04.016
- Robertson, C. E., & Baron-Cohen, S. (2017). Sensory perception in autism. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 18(11), 671–684. https://doi.org/10.1038/nrn.2017.112
- Schauder, K. B., & Bennetto, L. (2016). Toward an Interdisciplinary Understanding of Sensory Dysfunction in Autism Spectrum Disorder: An Integration of the Neural and Symptom Literatures. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 10. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2016.00268
- Kojovic, Ben Hadid, Franchini, & Schaer. (2019). Sensory Processing Issues and Their Association with Social Difficulties in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Journal of Clinical Medicine, 8(10), 1508. https://doi.org/10.3390/jcm8101508
- Hackel, L. M., Larson, G. M., Bowen, J. D., Ehrlich, G. A., Mann, T. C., Middlewood, B., … & Barrett, L. F. (2016). On the neural implausibility of the modular mind: Evidence for distributed construction dissolves boundaries between perception, cognition, and emotion. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 39. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0140525X15002770.
- Ashburner, J., Ziviani, J., & Rodger, S. (2008). Sensory processing and classroom emotional, behavioral, and educational outcomes in children with autism spectrum disorder. The American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 62(5), 564-573.
- Ismael, N., Lawson, L. M., & Hartwell, J. (2018). Relationship Between Sensory Processing and Participation in Daily Occupations for Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Systematic Review of Studies That Used Dunn’s Sensory Processing Framework. The American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 72(3), 7203205030p1-7203205030p9. https://doi.org/10.5014/ajot.2018.024075
- Thye, M. D., Bednarz, H. M., Herringshaw, A. J., Sartin, E. B., & Kana, R. K. (2018). The impact of atypical sensory processing on social impairments in autism spectrum disorder. Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience, 29, 151–167. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dcn.2017.04.010
- Gentil-Gutiérrez, A., Cuesta-Gómez, J. L., Rodríguez-Fernández, P., & González-Bernal, J. J. (2021). Implication of the Sensory Environment in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Perspectives from School. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18(14), 7670. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18147670
- Zapparrata, N. M., Brooks, P. J., & Ober, T. M. (2022). Slower Processing Speed in Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Meta-analytic Investigation of Time-Based Tasks. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-022-05736-3
- Edwards, L. A. (2014). A Meta-Analysis of Imitation Abilities in Individuals With Autism Spectrum Disorders: Meta-analysis of imitation in ASD. Autism Research, 7(3), 363–380. https://doi.org/10.1002/aur.1379
- Fernandez-Prieto, M., Moreira, C., Cruz, S., Campos, V., Martínez-Regueiro, R., Taboada, M., Carracedo, A., & Sampaio, A. (2021). Executive Functioning: A Mediator Between Sensory Processing and Behaviour in Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 51(6), 2091–2103. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-020-04648-4
- Nackaerts, E., Wagemans, J., Helsen, W., Swinnen, S. P., Wenderoth, N., & Alaerts, K. (2012). Recognizing Biological Motion and Emotions from Point-Light Displays in Autism Spectrum Disorders. PLoS ONE, 7(9), e44473. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0044473
- Joosten, A. V., & Bundy, A. C. (2010). Sensory processing and stereotypical and repetitive behaviour in children with autism and intellectual disability: SENSORY PROCESSING IN AUTISM. Australian Occupational Therapy Journal, 57(6), 366–372. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1440-1630.2009.00835.x
- Robledo, J., Donnellan, A. M., & Strandt-Conroy, K. (2012). An exploration of sensory and movement differences from the perspective of individuals with autism. Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience, 6. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnint.2012.00107
Li, I., Shen, P.-S., Wu, M.-L., & Wang, W. (2022). The relationship between preschoolers’ sensory regulation and temperament: Implications for parents and early childhood caregivers. Early Child Development and Care, 192(8), 1190–1200. https://doi.org/10.1080/03004430.2020.1853116