AUTISM AND ANXIETY: THE IMPACT OF SENSORY PROCESSING DIFFERENCES

The way autistic children process information from their senses can make their worlds seem difficult and challenging, and our technology can help that.

The world of people who deal with autism and anxiety may seem unpredictable, too fast, and too loud, often out of control and emotionally taxing.  This can result in increased levels of nervousness, worry and overwhelming emotions, which can make it extremely difficult to navigate the demands of daily life. 

We are all born to be unique individuals…right from the start.  How we experience and understand the world around us is impacted by many factors. One of the major factors is our sensory system.  While we may not be consciously thinking about our sensory system all the time, it is always processing information, through our vision, hearing, taste, smell, touch and feelings. 

For individuals on the Autism Spectrum or those with neurological differences, sensory processing differences can have a major impact on how they experience and interpret the world around them.  These differences are not necessarily negative.  Many autistics do not feel that their sensory processing differences are a challenge, but rather view them as strengths, with which they are comfortable.

In this second article in a three-part series on autism and anxiety, Invirtua Senior Partner Leslie Baldwin unravels the way that autistic children respond to puppets and puppet shows, including Invirtua’s digital puppets.

Malachi and speech therapist Enid Webb work with Invirtua avatar Scotch to help with pronunciation. Scotch has prepared a slide presentation that challenges Malachi and helps him go through it while his therapist prompts and encourages him. Scotch’s avatar pilot Gary Jesch has prepared many slides shows for avatars with the professional guidance of speech therapists.

With Support, Responding is Better Than Reacting

Everyone has sensory processing differences or preferences.  So, what can these differences or challenges look like?  Some individuals may be “over-reactive,” some may be “under-reactive,” and yet others may be a bit of both or “mixed-reactivity.” 

A child that is “over-reactive” may tend to avoid certain situations or tasks that overwhelm their sensory system; while a child that is “under-reactive” may seek out experiences that provide more sensory input as a way to “activate and organize” their sensory system.  Of course, with mixed reactivity, a child may at times avoid or seek out different experiences that affect their sensory system.

Sensory processing challenges often lead to high anxiety levels.  As parents, we see the result of high levels of anxiety in our child’s behavior at home, school, and community settings.  We can help support children by addressing these challenges so that they are better able to lower their anxiety levels and strengthen their underlying core capacities to:

  • Regulate both emotionally and physically
  • Communicate more successfully (gestures, non-verbal and verbal)
  • Engage with others
  • Focus both at home and in the classroom
  • Engage in shared social problem solving
  • Adapt to new environments and situations

There are a variety of therapeutic models currently used to help support autistics including: ABA, DIR, developmentally based, OT, PT, Speech and Mental Health models.  What research and experience tells us is that the majority of children on the autism spectrum will require multi-disciplinary approaches to help them strengthen areas of challenge that may interfere with their ability to emotionally and/or physically regulate, learn new skills, and adapt to new situations. 

One increasingly powerful way of helping autistic kids see how their bodies respond is through video modeling, which takes on a wide variety of forms using video cameras in phones to capture behavior. 

The use of video-based interventions such as peer-modeling (e.g., Charlop, & Milstein, 1989), Point-of-view modeling (e.g., Hine & Wolery, 2006), self-modeling (e.g., Buggey & Ogle, 2013), and computer assisted instruction (e.g., Ayres, Maguire, & McClimon, 2009) has been gaining popularity in the field of autism. The research database has increased to the point where many video-based methods can be considered research-based (Bellini, Akulian, & Hopf, 2007). The commonality across these interventions is the video screen. The child focuses on a two-dimensional field rather than on a “live” adult.

Girl Covered in Paint

In many cases of autism, sensory challenges may affect individual senses or a combination, and they may trigger anxiety and feelings that lead to getting stuck emotionally. They can also be powerful and repetitious, and difficult to regulate without support.

Video Modeling Can Also Be Accomplished With Puppets

Over the past 40 years, video modeling has relied on humans as the models whether they are peers, adults, or the viewers themselves.  The popularity of cartoon programming and “culture” is obvious among youngsters and has been used for modeling social and academic skills on shows like Sesame Street™, The Electric Company™, Dora the Explorer™, Sid the Science Kid™, and many computer-based programs. Sesame Street remains the most studied of all children’s programming with universally positive outcomes in social and academic skills found in studies conducted from 1970 through 2012 (Mares & Pan, 2013).

The technology needed to allow avatars to become interactive and responsive, and to portray human-like features has only recently become available. The Avatar Adventures program provides these innovations, including lip sync, real-time movement of the avatar, and a full range of facial expressions.

Through clinical observations and research at BYU and the University of Nevada-Reno, Invirtua’s Avatar Adventures demonstrated the ability to hold children’s attention, improve their ability to stay engaged and respond to questions. The digital puppets help them succeed with language targets, increase their social skills, and expand on their ability to generalize these new skills to other environments.  The program has also received high ratings on usability by parents, teachers, and therapists.

While there are many types of therapy available for children with high anxiety and sensory processing challenges, Invirtua’s Avatar Adventures provide unique, interactive experiences that are easy to access and affordable.

Brain Illustration

Scientists are discovering that some autistic children encounter a heightened “fight-or-flight” stimulation of the Amygdala, that doesn’t go away easily, leaving them in a constant state of anxiety similar to “stage fright.” Only when they get help to take their minds off it, can these children overcome the experience of being stuck in a negative emotion that is very powerful and overwhelming.

The Technology Evolution of Sesame Street Leads to Digital Puppets

Referring back to the universal appeal of Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers… think back on your childhood and you may be able to remember some of the lessons you learned from Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, and Bert and Ernie.  Mr. Rogers had many wonderful neighbors, always made every child feel special and his puppets taught many lessons.  Every child had a favorite character…can you remember who your favorites were?

Just like the puppets and programs we grew up with, Invirtua’s animated avatars are designed to help each child feel comfortable and valued.  Learning new concepts can often be difficult for autistic children with high anxiety levels.  The real “magic” of Avatar Adventures is the way they help reduce a child’s anxiety level.  Invirtua’s staff work with each family to determine session goals, the appropriate developmental level and encourage active feedback from parents to ensure goals are being addressed and met.

The animated avatars help create environments that lower anxiety, and appear non-intimidating and friendly.  Lessons become fun, interactive and concepts are easier to learn.  The avatar playfully interacts with each child and becomes its supportive play pal.  The ability to utilize the program in your own home, scheduled at a time convenient for you and your child is an added bonus.

While animated avatars may not replace other therapies your child may be enrolled in, the experience can be a powerful tool you can add to your “Parenting Toolbox,” by helping your child lower their anxiety level, increase their ability to pay attention, and learn new concepts, on their journey to reaching their full potential.

If you are interested in learning more about autism and anxiety, core capacities, and sensory processing, we have posted a document on our website with information and resource links that you can read online or download.

Intrigued? Stay tuned for Part Three of this three-part series on autism and anxiety: “When Clinical Anxiety Appears.” Invirtua Content Creator Andrew Ciampi examines the facts surround clinically diagnosed autism among autistic persons.

*A special Thank You to Tom Buggey, PhD, for his contributions to the field of video modeling for autistics and advisement to Invirtua.  Dr. Buggey is an expert in the field of video-modeling, from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.  He has conducted research on this very promising technique (especially with children with autism) since 1993 and has published numerous research papers on the topic. In 2009 he published the first book on VSM – Seeing is Believing. He is currently on the editorial board of Focus on Autism and serves on the advisory boards of Autism Behavior Services, Look At Me Now, and Invirtua.

Amygdala, The Brain’s Threat Detector has broad roles in Autism – Spectrum News

Autism and Anxiety – Part 1 – Invirtua

Hayley’s Story – Invirtua

Leslie Baldwin

Leslie Baldwin is the Senior Partner at Invirtua. She’s a parent, educator, autism and rare disease advocate, as well as a former manager of the Bridges Program of Texas Children’s Hospital. She has served as a Board Member – Patient Advocacy Non-Profit Organizations and sENS.

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