How Sensory Experiences in Children With and Without Autism Affect Family Occupations

Research Brief

Research on sensory processing in children with autism has devoted little attention to how sensory experiences affect their families’ daily activities and special events. The researchers defined a sensory experience as an event in which a person is affected by a stimulus to one or more of the senses (temperature, pressure, seeing, hearing, taste, smell, touch, and movement). Previous research has noted that, based on parent report, children with autism have significantly more sensory symptoms than typically developing children and children with development delays. Earlier studies have also pointed out that mothers of children with autism often talk about having to restructure family life because of their children’s behaviors, and that adapting to a child’s responses to sensory stimuli can have an impact on the families’ shared activities and experiences.

The primary purpose of this study was to describe what affect children’s sensory experiences may have on family activities and routines and to look at the similarities among and differences between children with autism and children who are typically developing.

The participants for this study were parents of typically developing children and of children with autism. The researcher interviewed parents of 12 children. The study found that children’s sensory experiences affected (1) what a family chose to do or not do; (2) how the family prepared for the activity; and (3) the extent to which experiences, meaning and feelings were shared.

Children’s sensory experiences affected which activities families chose to participate in and which to avoid. All parents described the benefits of physical activity, often labeled “getting the child’s energy out.” Family activities and routines were also affected by the extent to which families were willing to expose children to or avoid stimulating sensory experiences. Families appeared to choose to avoid particular situations if the child had a prior negative sensory experience in a similar situation or when the parents predicted a bad sensory experience. The parents of older typically developing children and some older children with autism sometimes intentionally exposed their children to stimulating sensory environments in an effort to help their children develop problem solving and coping strategies.

Both groups of parents described how preparation and planning increased for activities with strong sensory components. However, as might be expected, family activities and routines appeared to require more planning and preparation for the parents of children with autism than for the parents of typically developing children.

Children’s sensory experiences affected the extent to which experiences, meaning, and feelings were shared during family activities. Many times feelings were positive, leading to a sense of togetherness. However, some parents of children with autism described how their families did not experience the same activity together, either because the child with autism, confronted with more negative sensory experiences, did not participate, or because the family split up during certain activities, such as sporting events and parties.  In addition to the lack of shared experiences during family activities, parents of children with autism commonly talked about feelings of confusion and worry as well.

In summary, the researchers found that children’s sensory experiences affected (1) what the family chose to do or not do, (2) how the family prepared, and (3) the extent to which experiences, meaning, and feelings were shared during the activity. This research demonstrates the importance of sensory experiences in the day to day activities of individual families and also suggests the importance of occupational therapy practitioners assisting families to come up with strategies that address sensory issues within the context of family routines and activities.

This Research Brief is based on the article: Bagby, M.S., Dickie, V.A.,& Baranek, G.T. (2012). How sensory experiences in children with and without autism affect family occupations. The American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 66(1), 78-86.

This research was supported by a grant from NICHD (R01 HD42168). We thank the families whose participation made this study possible. For more information about The Sensory Experiences

Project please visit our website: http://www.med.unc.edu/sep


The University

of North Carolina at Chapel Hill