Many autistic people find it difficult to process sensory information.
It often defines how they feel, think and act.
Autism is a lifelong developmental disability.
You have to learn to live with it.
What if, just for a moment, we ignore the Autism label and look at how most people process sensory information. Maybe, just maybe, that will provide us with useful clues that will help our children.
Cocktail Party Syndrome: The inability to focus attention on a voice in a noisy environment. People with only one functioning ear seem much more distracted by interfering noise than people with two healthy ears. By comparing the auditory information from the left ear (processed mainly in the right brain hemisphere) with that of the right ear (processed mainly in the left hemisphere), the brain is able to pay selective attention to what is important.
People on the autistic spectrum often have similar issues, finding it difficult to pay attention to what, from a neuro-typical perspective, is regarded as important. All sounds are often perceived to mingle together and may also be experienced as overly loud.
Try this in a supermarket, train station or other noisy environment: completely close one ear with a finger and try to follow a conversation. Almost everyone will find this very difficult. Maybe it’s similar to how some people on the autistic spectrum perceive the world all the time.
Improved auditory processing and, most importantly, better communication between the two sides of the brain, can reduce the effects of Cocktail Party Syndrome. This can be achieved through targeted auditory brain training.
Sensory Overload: On a cold rainy day in mid winter, after many hours of battling disaster after disaster at school or work, being hungry, tired and unappreciated, most people will have a stooped posture, looking down to the floor, rapidly being annoyed by any interruption or unexpected noise. It’s quite ‘normal’. Thousands of others returning home also feel like that. Under these circumstances they all have a reduced capacity to process sensory information and are easily overloaded. A good meal, a warm bath or shower, some soothing music and a comfortable couch mostly does the trick to return to normality.
Many people with autism experience the world around them like that all the time, 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year. No wonder they have meltdowns, have ‘behavioural issues’ or are not very sociable.
We receive some 11 million bits of information through our five main senses, every second of our waking day. If we want it or not, our brain will have to deal with this avalanche of information. Unless we ignore almost all of this input, we will experience sensory overload. People on the autistic spectrum, and those diagnosed with so called Attention Deficit Disorder, often do not delete enough of this information and thus get easily distracted or overloaded.
How well we process sensory input from our eyes, ears, skin, nose and mouth is key to our ability to make sense of the world and interact with it. We can train our brain to be better at sensory processing in many ways, from learning to play a musical instrument to specific brain training programmes.
Limited Language: I speak a number of languages, but not the language of the country I currently live in, Turkish. I understand it a bit and can use about one hundred words at a push, but when I’m listening in to a conversation in Turkish, I really struggle. I understand some words, but by the time I’ve recognised the word and retrieved the meaning from memory, the conversation has moved on and I’m lost. For a few minutes I’ll try to concentrate on what’s being said, but then I rapidly give up and retreat into my own world, without Turkish language.
I learned to speak my Dutch mother tongue quite fluently within about two years, but I’m struggling with Turkish for many years already, so the speed of learning to speak a language does vary, even when allowing for my far more advanced age now.
When someone speaks very slowly and clearly Turkish to me and there are no other interruptions to distract me, then I cope much better and when given plenty of time to string a few words together, I may even respond appropriately. Please note that a quiet environment will reduce the demands on my sensory processing centres, thus allowing more brain power to be used for language processing.
This is maybe similar to how language is perceived to people with no or limited speech. With language coming in too fast, word recognition being too slow and people not allowing enough time for a response, giving up speaking altogether may be the best option. For non-verbals there are undoubtedly other processing issues at stake too, but this simple scenario may well form part of the complex issue of speech delay.
Having a child with language delay is of course a great worry for parents, and given the importance of speech there are remarkably few effective interventions to help children progress with acquiring speech.
A growing body of evidence shows that trying to process language in the less suited right hemisphere of the brain may be part of language disorders such as developmental dyslexia and speech delay in autism  . The Constraint-Induced Language Therapy (C-ILT) I have developed as part of the SAS methodology builds on this theory. By activating the left hemisphere with speech, whilst constraining the right hemisphere by feeding it complex non-speech material often leads to marked improvements in reading and speech development.
From working with thousands of children with autism I know that change may not be that easy, but is always possible. I know that understanding their world better, enables us to find innovative ways to help them grow. I know that simple to apply programmes often form part of the practical solutions that we seek for our children. There clearly is no golden bullet as far as speech acquisition is concerned, but the easy to apply C-ILT method may just be the extra push that a child requires to accelerated speech development.
Just three examples of situations that many people may recognise from their own lives and that might mirror how people with autism experience the world. Ultimately we’re not that different after all!
 Hawley ML, Litovsky RY, Culling JF (February 2004). “The benefit of binaural hearing in a cocktail party: effect of location and type of interferer”. J. Acoust. Soc. Am. 115 (2): 833–43. doi:10.1121/1.1639908. PMID 15000195.
 “The reversal of cerebral asymmetry that occurred in ten of the dyslexic patients may result in language lateralization to a cerebral hemisphere that is structurally less suited to support language function and thus act as a risk factor for the development of reading disability.” Developmental Dyslexia, Evidence for a Subgroup With a Reversal of Cerebral Asymmetry; Daniel B. Hier, MD, Marjorie LeMay, MD, Peter B. Rosenberger, MD, Vincent P. Perlo, MD; Arch Neurol. 1978;35(2):90-92. doi:10.1001/archneur.1978.00500260028005.
 “In 57% of the autistic patients the right parietooccipital region was wider than the left, while this pattern of cerebral asymmetry was found in only 23% of the mentally retarded (sic) patients and 25% of the neurological patients. It is suggested that unfavorable morphologic asymmetries of the brain near the posterior language zone may contribute to the difficulties autistic children experience in acquiring language.” Autism and unfavorable left-right asymmetries of the brain; Hier DB, LeMay M, Rosenberger PB; J Autism Dev Disord. 1979 Jun; 9(2):153-9.