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What is Sensory Defensiveness in Autism?

May 24, 2024

Just imagine walking into a busy cafe, where you’re met with a strong smell of coffee, hot air filling the room, and loud music filling your ears. Just thinking about it may make your anxiety start building up. Welcome to the world of sensory defensiveness, where even the most innocent stimuli will drive children with autism to exaggerated responses.

Sensory defensiveness is a hallmark trait of autism, and it can be hard to deal with – both for children on the spectrum and their families. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll help you manage this condition in your little one so they can experience the beauty of life without feeling threatened.

If you’d like to learn more about sensory processing issues in autism, you can download your free guide here:

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Sensory Processing Disorder The Ultimate Guide

What is Sensory Defensiveness?

Sensory defensiveness is a sensory processing disorder (SPD) where individuals react defensively or overly to stimuli that are typically considered neutral or positive. 

This means the child may emotionally or behaviorally defend themselves or avoid certain sensations. Sensory defensiveness can occur in any or all sensory systems, causing the child to avoid or feel irritated by various sensations.

For children with sensory defensiveness, the world can be overwhelming, leading to negative behavior and emotions. This may cause them to avoid everyday activities, potentially delaying developmental milestones.

Different defensive behaviors are linked to specific sensory systems, such as:

  • Auditory defensiveness: being extremely sensitive to sound. The child might perceive sounds as too loud or intolerable in pitch.
  • Visual Defensiveness: The child may squint and feel uncomfortable in bright light, prefer staying indoors on sunny days, and become disoriented in visually busy environments.
  • Oral Defensiveness: sensitivity in the sense of smell and taste. 
  • Vestibular, Gravitational, or Postural Insecurity: feeling sick or dizzy or experiencing fear can occur when exposed to activities that involve movement and body awareness.
  • Tactile Defensiveness: a child reacts strongly to touch, often avoiding or negatively responding to non-painful tactile stimuli.

Because sensory defensiveness isn’t officially diagnosed, these children are sometimes seen as out of control. In reality, they’re reacting to their brain’s perception of the world around them.

Girl with auditory sensory defensiveness

Sensory Defensiveness in Autism

Many studies have found that a high percentage of autistic children face sensory difficulties. 

In a study from 2007, 95% of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) showed some level of sensory processing difficulty.

Considering the odds, it’s likely that your autistic child may have sensory difficulties or sensitivities, possibly sensory defensiveness. Being aware of this can help parents prepare for situations that might overwhelm their autistic children.

Managing Sensory Defensiveness

In a presentation, Supporting Nervous System Function Through Sensory Intervention and Adaptation for the Autism Parenting Summit, author and behavioral therapist Rebecca Duvall Scott and occupational therapist Hannah Ragan shared some advice for parents dealing with sensory difficulties.

Rebecca detailed the story of her son’s journey with sensory processing disorder and, along with Hannah, shared many practical tips to help children with sensory difficulties thrive.

Some of these suggestions include:

  • A sensory diet: Sometimes, a child must eliminate gluten and dairy. The child may also need to be tested for deficiencies, and their diet may need to be supplemented to enable optimum nervous system functioning.
  • Occupational therapy and speech therapy: Work with a team that understands your child’s condition and specific sensory difficulties
  • Environmental adaptations: Practical examples like taking noise-canceling headphones to loud places or providing deep pressure with weighted blankets during times of stress are discussed.
  • Parents should be aware of their child’s triggers

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The presenters make a great case for a child aware of their sensory needs. Such children can advocate for themselves, control their environment better, and make better decisions as they recognize their strengths and sensory limitations.

Rebecca and Hannah wrote a book with treatment strategies and insights for parents helping their kids deal with sensory differences: Sensational Kids, Sensational Families: Hope for Sensory Processing Differences.

What Causes Sensory Defensiveness in Adults and Children?

To effectively support individuals with autism sensory defensiveness, it’s essential to understand the potential underlying causes. The most common ones are:

  • Complications during prenatal or birth stages
  • Low birth weight
  • Premature birth 
  • Stress and anxiety
  • Substance use during pregnancy
  • Genetic and environmental influences
  • Exposure to strong chemicals during childhood
  • Low sensory stimulation

You Are Your Child’s Biggest Advocate

Research is beginning to shift how people view sensory difficulties. In the past, many in the medical community ignored conditions like Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD).

Parents who learn, speak up for their children, and create a less intimidating environment make a significant impact. Your autistic child dealing with sensory defensiveness is likely tired of facing a battle that the world often doesn’t understand.

Download your FREE guide on 

Sensory Processing Disorder The Ultimate Guide


Q: What is an example of sensory defensiveness?

A: Sensory defensiveness, where the brain is extra sensitive to sensory input, can be seen when a child reacts strongly to a sudden noise in the classroom, responding with an aggressive outburst.

Q: What causes sensory defensiveness?

A: Several factors, including premature birth, genetics, and environmental influences, are believed to contribute to sensory defensiveness.

Q: How is sensory processing sensitivity treated in adults?

A: Adults dealing with SPD can benefit from occupational therapy, where they can learn new responses to sensory input, potentially leading to improved handling of various situations and a better life.

Q: Can you have sensory issues without autism?

A: Individuals can experience sensory issues without having autism. Sensory issues can be present in various conditions and may also occur independently.

Q: Can anxiety cause sensory issues?

A: Anxiety can contribute to sensory issues, as heightened stress levels can impact how individuals perceive and process sensory stimuli. This can lead to increased sensitivity or difficulties in managing sensory experiences.


A Population-Based Twin Study of Parentally Reported Tactile and Auditory Defensiveness in Young Children

Atypical sensory processing features in children with autism, and their relationships with maladaptive behaviors and caregiver strain, 2022

Oral defensiveness: children with a dysfunction of sensory regulation

Tactile functions: their relation to hyperactive and perceptual motor behavior

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