Picture a young boy participating in his first basketball camp. He enters the school and is nervous about learning a new sport and meeting new friends. As he walks into the gymnasium, he is acutely aware of the painfully bright lights and the children running amok in all directions. Balls are bouncing and flying through the air which causes sensations of unease, uncertainty, and a heightened level of anxiety. The boy clamps his eyes closed and starts inching uneasily towards the nearest exit. High pitched squeals, raucous laughter, and balls pinging off of walls overwhelm his senses and make his heart beat wildly in his chest. He is quickly becoming completely overwhelmed by the echoes and vibration of sounds and the barrage of colors and movement. He becomes hyper-focused on the scratchy fabric of his uniform and the air gusts pummeling his body as other children race by, seemingly unaffected by any of the stimuli. Despite his father’s attempts at encouragement and reassurance, the boy is frozen in place and rigidly resisting any attempts to soothe him. The words to describe his experience whirl haphazardly through his brain and he is unable to harness them into coherent thoughts. This scenario is only one moment, a tiny snapshot, of what it feels like to live with the unpredictability of autism.
What is Autism?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), autism is a developmental disability characterized by significant social, communication, and behavioral challenges. People who have autism appear physically similar to others, yet they see and experience the world from a vastly different point of view. While learning, thinking, and problem-solving skills may vary greatly between individuals diagnosed with autism, they share many common characteristics. One prominent characteristic of autism is sensory processing dysfunction (SPD). Individuals with SPD may be over-responsive to sensory stimuli, such as loud noises, fast-moving images, or uncomfortable touch input. They might also be under-responsive to verbal instructions, visual cues in the environment, or movement. People with autism can have difficulty interpreting social cues and interacting appropriately in social settings. Due to the difficulty in processing information and responding to environmental stimulation, people who have autism might also have difficulty communicating with or interpreting the intentions of others.
History of Autism
The term autism was first used by psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler in 1908. He coined the term to describe a schizophrenic patient who had withdrawn into his own world. The Greek word ''autós'' means self and the word “autism” was used by Bleuler to describe a “morbid self-admiration and withdrawal within self.” The earliest known diagnosis of autism was given in 1943. The term was first used to describe a young man from Mississippi who had been diagnosed as having a mental disorder and institutionalization was recommended. The young man was born into an affluent family who were not comfortable with the recommended placement of him in an institution. As a result, they began to seek the help of specialists who might assist them in identifying their son’s needs and how to address them.
The family discovered Dr. Leo Kanner, one of the nation’s top child psychiatrists and professor at John Hopkins University. Upon studying the family’s detailed notes of the patient, Dr. Kanner identified terminology and behavioral patterns consistent with the diagnosis of autism. Some of those descriptions included “happiest when left alone,” “drawing into a shell and living inside himself,” and “oblivious to things around him.” Dr. Kanner’s work went on to be essential in the field of clinical psychiatry and enabled those working with patients who exhibited these characteristics to use more accurate terminology. Autism now had a name and characteristics, which allowed experts to note common behaviors in other patients. This catapulted leading researchers into the long and arduous journey of identifying and treating those with autism.
Autism on the Rise
Since it was first identified in 1943, the incidence of autism has been rapidly increasing over the past 70+ years. Currently, 1 in 44 children in the United States are diagnosed with autism. The incidence of autism in boys (1 in 27) is higher than girls (1 in 116). Children can be diagnosed with autism as early as 2-4 years of age, but identification of autism and autism-related symptoms can occur at any age. While there are no medical tests to accurately diagnose autism, healthcare providers consider a variety of factors when identifying symptoms.
Autism spectrum disorder is one of the fastest-growing developmental disorders being diagnosed in the United States. However, only half of primary care providers screen for autism, especially when financial resources are limited. As more awareness builds, Autism is being recognized more often in lower-socioeconomic groups than in the past. And while the incidence is narrowing, a racial discrepancy exists in the identification of autism as well.
Early diagnosis of autism is vital to achieving positive outcomes in development and complementary and alternative medicine is sometimes considered when traditional methods of sensory and behavioral support are not successful. Each person with autism is unique and differs as much from one individual to another just as in the general population.
Movement and the Sensory System
In this constantly changing world, it can be difficult for anyone to find a proper balance of movement and rest in order to achieve a state of regulation and focus. The majority of people would agree that movement is necessary to maintain joint flexibility, strength, and endurance. However, movement can also provide an essential amount of sensory input and feedback. For people on the spectrum, movement may interfere with the ability to focus if it is not provided in a controlled and regulated manner.
In order to better understand movement and its impact on one’s ability to focus, let’s imagine two different daily routines. In the first scenario, a young woman begins every day with yoga and mindfulness activities. In the second scenario, she doesn’t go to bed when she needs to and often oversleeps. This leads to a frenzied morning with no breakfast and hurtling out the door. It’s not hard to guess who’s going to have the more productive day, right? In the second scenario, the young woman is not taking the time for adequate rest or for relaxing movement to free her mind and body for focused attention on work tasks.
What is Focus?
The word “focus” comes from Latin origin, meaning “hearth or fireplace.” This Merriam-Webster dictionary reference also describes the term as a “point of convergence,” which suggests the ability to gather information from a variety of sources in order to “focus” on a topic or event of importance. With this definition in mind, one can imagine a pleasant state of warmth where sights and sounds create a distraction-free environment. Such an environment would free the mind to focus on important matters at hand. Merriam-Webster further defines focus as a “state or condition permitting clear perception or understanding.” This definition suggests that focus is a necessary ingredient to support sustained attention.
Focus and Autism
People who have been diagnosed with autism often struggle with the ability to focus on matters essential to daily living. Lack of focus during morning routines may lead a person to neglect their basic needs. They may not maintain a healthy diet or they may forgo their grooming or hygiene needs. The inability to focus might cause a person to pay little attention to their personal appearance and social norms. This type of inattention to essential daily activities could also impact a person’s ability to maintain a healthy dose of movement. Limited movement also leads to limited sensory input. By restricting the physical movement opportunities of daily routines, sensory input will become either reduced or misinterpreted. Therefore, people who have autism benefit from prescribed, daily doses of movement that provide the necessary amount of sensory input to maintain focus.
Traditional & Sensory Senses
The traditional five senses include vision, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. Three additional sensory systems: vestibular, proprioception, and interoception, also contribute to a person’s ability to focus.
Traditional Senses and their relation to our ability to focus:
- Our vision and hearing provides feedback for a person to orient themselves to a given environment. Without these two senses, a person must rely on other senses to gain information relative to visual and auditory inputs. In order to focus, the visual and auditory systems interpret information and sort out what is helpful or distracting.
- The sense of touch provides information regarding the physical attributes of the environment. Just as the muscular and skeletal systems provide information regarding a person’s body awareness, the touch system enables a person to determine the necessary amount of input needed to sustain attention or focus.
- The senses of taste and smell offer additional information to regulate the overall body to function in its highest capacity. These senses can potentially interfere or assist in regulating the body when seeking to focus on priority tasks.
The Three Additional Sensory Senses and their relation to a person’s ability to focus:
- The vestibular system receives input directly from receptors in the inner ear to provide information regarding a person’s relative position in space. This system allows a person to know whether they are standing, sitting, moving back and forth, or up and down.
- The proprioceptive system receives input directly from the joints and muscles of the body to help a person understand how much input is appropriate for movement. Proprioception can also be described as “muscle sense.”
- The interoception system perceives sensation from within the body structures, organs, and tissues. This system helps to regulate essential body functions such as breathing, heart rate, and hunger.
Finding Focus Through Movement
Finding focus through movement can be achieved by providing a multi-sensory environment, rich with activities to regulate all parts of the human body. People with autism need to find activities that are customized to their individualized needs. SensoryRx was developed to serve the needs of people who have autism. By providing a product to meet the needs of all people with sensory processing needs, SensoryRx plans to be an industry leader in the market of sensory equipment.
Kevin Anderson has been an occupational therapist for 36 years, with experience in adult rehabilitation, school-based practice, and home-based therapy. He is currently a faculty member of the occupational therapy department at the University of Mary and program coordinator of the Fargo campus and is certified as an assistive technology professional. He maintains a private practice, where he works with individuals who have multiple disabilities. He holds a PhD in Education, where he studied the impact of activity at TNT Kids Fitness on individuals who have multiple disabilities. His research agenda has involved the study of physical activity, employment, assistive technology, and sensory interventions. He has provided consultation to schools, homes, and facilities in the community that serve individuals with disabilities for many years, with a special interest in creating sensory environments.