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Sensory Cognition in Autism: What’s the Connection?

December 20, 2021

To understand sensory cognition in children with autism, we first need a general understanding of the eight different sensory systems. We are all born with these systems, which include vision, smell, hearing, touch, taste, vestibular, proprioception, and interoception. How children interact and learn from the world around them is typically done through these senses.

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The three least known systems are the vestibular, proprioception, and interoception. Vestibular helps with where a person’s body is and relation to movement and balance, whereas proprioception is the sense of where a person’s body parts are in relation to each other, and the interoception gives internal cues like hunger.

When these systems work together, a child is able to better able to explore and understand the world around them. If there is a sensitivity, the senses can then become overstimulated and make it harder for the child to get the feedback they need to learn from the interaction.

What is sensory cognition?

Sensory cognition is how senses are used to make a connection with the world around us. Let’s consider playing with slime as an example. When a child touches slime, they use multiple senses like touch, smell, vision, and can hear the squelching of the slime as well. That connection in the brain has been made and connects to memory.

The next time the child sees slime, the memory of the stickiness of the slime will be recalled and brought forward in their memory.  The vision hearing senses activate and are used when the slime pops and plops on the table with large pieces of bright glitter that the child can grab and feel.

Those connections were made in the child’s brain and helped them further relate to the world around themselves. That would be the same for any sensory experience in the world and how children perceive it through their senses.

No matter what age an individual is, we all take in the world through our senses to learn what is going on around us. Children with any kind of sensory or cognitive difference, as can be the case with autism, may therefore have a harder time comprehending and interacting with the world around them.

This can look like a child not wanting to put their hand in the slime to get the dinosaur bone because of how cold the slime feels to their hands. Although they want the dinosaur bones hidden within, their sense of touch is overriding their curiosity because it is sending negative feedback to the brain resulting in the child possibly shutting down or having a meltdown because they are overstimulated.

Are sensory perception and cognition related?

A study by Humes and Young connected sensory and cognitive function in aging adults. The research stated that when there was a decline in hearing, vision, or both in aging adults, there was also a decline in cognitive function and memory. 

With this research, there is evidence of a link between cognitive decline. This link might suggest there could also be a link for children who have an over or underactive sensory system, as could be the case for children with autism. With evidence from this study, there could be a direct connection to children and their sensory perception and cognition.

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There are a lot of early childhood classrooms that use sensory play as a way to teach pre-literacy skills, early science, early math, and other cognitive skills. Teachers and parents alike can attest to the power of a good story. There are books that have different textures, sounds and contrasting colors that are said to stimulate the brains of children. The vision hearing connection to story time, along with sensory play or textures have been said to help solidify what the children are learning in the book.

Does autism affect sensory cognition in children?

Everyone interprets the world around themselves a little different. When a child has autism, there are a number of factors that can affect cognitive functions and a child’s sensory systems.

These individuals are as different as snow flakes that fall in winter. That  means that they can have just as many aversions or attractions to different senses being stimulated.

With that said, if a child is having a hard time processing the sense that is being overstimulated, it can be difficult to focus on the task and hand. If they are unable to focus on the task, than how can they be expected to learn whatever cognitive function they are being taught?

There is an exercise used that has an adult try and complete a task while there are overstimulating activities going on around them, like popping noises and excessive talking. This is a great way of experiencing how a child with overactive senses can feel in the classroom.

The exercise proves that if all the child’s attention and concentration is being spent on what’s going on around them, then the attention they need to learn is being used on their surroundings and not the task at hand. It would be easier to alter the environment and find supports the child needs to develop coping skills so they are better equipped to focus on learning and not what is going on around them.

Therapies like sensory integration, where a child is slowly introduced to different activities that stimulate different senses, can help the child react and cope with the world around them. These coping mechanisms can then be expanded and used while the child is learning in an over active environment.

What can parents do?

Once a parent finds out they can help their child better understand the world around them through sensory activities like a sand table, story time, playing with play dough at the table, and many other activities at home, they open up a world of possibilities. There are a wide selection of books for parents about sensory play which give more ideas.

Overall, children learn about their environment through their senses, that is why a baby not only grabs a toy but also puts the toy or whatever else they are checking out in their mouths. Their sense of taste and how something feels gives them a broader idea of whatever item they are discovering.

When a child has a sensory difference like autism or sensory processing disorder, the world can be overstimulating making it harder to learn and develop different cognitive skills. Through activities at home and working with professionals with different therapies, the child can learn more about their world through their senses.


Humes, L., & Young, L. (2016, July). Sensory-Cognitive Interactions in Older Adults. NCBI. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4930008/                       

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