Sensory regulation

What is Sensory regulation?

The body is always sending information to the brain about the environment. This is what allows us to experience sensations. Our brain interprets these sensations and gives them meaning, enabling us to be aware of our body and understand the world around us. But sometimes, the brain can be overwhelmed by the amount of information received from the body. At this point, the information sent by the body no longer makes sense. This is called sensory deregulation. It can happen to anyone, but it's much more common in people with autism. For this reason, autistic people need to take actions that help them maintain good sensory regulation.

Sensory regulation is when the brain interprets information from the body in a logical order, so that we can understand our environment. Autistic people use a number of intuitive techniques for sensory regulation. When we say intuitively, we’re referring to an action we’ve learned without having it explained to us (e.g. scratching when it stings is intuitive). Autistic people will intuitively perform two types of action for good sensory regulation: sensory avoidance and sensation seeking.


Although autistic people intuitively find all kinds of tricks for sensory regulation, it's also possible to learn from others. For example, special educators are trained to help find new sensory regulation tools and improve those that already work. There are also groups for autistic people to share experiences, tips and advice.

Sensory avoidance

Sensory avoidance includes all the actions autistic people may take to avoid a sensation that may interfere with their interpretation of sensations. Autistic people may want to avoid certain situations (e.g. shopping) or physical locations (e.g. a mall). There are also barrier methods for blocking sensations, such as closing the eyes, plugging the ears or wearing long or very large clothes. These barrier methods can be improved by using the right tools, such as sunglasses or noise-reducing headphones.

Sometimes, unpleasant sensations that can lead to sensory overload are unavoidable. For example, having a cavity repaired at the dentist is unpleasant for everyone. The light, the sound of the instruments, and all the other sensations surrounding the procedure can be even more difficult for people with autism. So it’s important to plan ahead for sensory barrier tools that can be used during the procedure.

In fact, in everyday life, there are actions that have to be done, no matter how much we dislike the sensations they provoke; like washing, or brushing our teeth. Some autistic people may be tempted not to wash to avoid sensory dysregulation. But for health reasons, it’s better to find pleasant, or less unpleasant, ways of doing the caring actions. It’s possible to find a showerhead with a gentle spray, to choose a soap according to its scent and texture, to always use the same model of toothbrush with ultra-soft bristles, etc. Instead of avoiding all care-related sensations, it’s possible to exchange unpleasant sensations for more pleasant ones. The important thing is that sensory avoidance techniques help to maintain good sensory regulation without preventing the performance of essential actions. This applies to all other situations in life that are obligatory, but which an autistic person wants to avoid in order to maintain good sensory regulation.

Sensation seeking

Sensation seeking for autistic people consists, as the name suggests, in repeatedly seeking out actions. There is a large family of behaviors that is sometimes called “stims” and includes all repetitive actions that enable sensory regulation. There’s a wide variety of stims; waving your hands, chewing on a rubber accessory, petting a doggie, etc. Stims are used to repeatedly seek out sensations. It works a bit like a metronome that gives a musician the tempo to help him or her keep time without playing too fast or too slow. Regular sensation makes it easier for the brain to sort out the information it receives from the body.

Sensation-seeking can help the autistic person ignore other sensations sent by the body. It’s as if the brain were taking a “break” to do its favorite activity without worrying about the rest. In these moments, the autistic person will be less aware of his or her environment. The autistic person will not do anything other than seek sensation. The autistic person may even ignore his or her name if called. These recreations are very important for autistic people. Sometimes there’s too much information sent by the body, and the brain can’t process it all. When sensation seeking allows the autistic person to ignore other sensations, it gives the brains time to “catch up” and the autistic person to simply rest. This prevents the person from becoming deregulated or overloaded.

Sensation seeking can also enable the autistic person to be more focused on his or her environment. It can even help the autistic person to perform complicated actions such as cooking, studying for an exam, or getting dressed. At this point, sensation-seeking serves as a metronome: by seeking a regular sensation, the autistic person can coordinate his or her actions with the sensation.

Sensation-seeking can also mean that autistic people have a strong preference for their routine. Routine means experiencing the same sensations over and over again. All brains have an easier time understanding familiar sensations. But the brains of autistic people are more sensitive to difference. Two brands of cereal that seem identical can bring different sensations. Autistic people are more likely to notice them. The surprise of a sensation that’s almost the same, but a little different, can cause deregulation. Routines and habits may seem rigid to allistic (non-autistic) people, but they can be very important to the well-being of the autistic person. Indeed, reliving exactly the same sensations facilitates sensory regulation.

Catherine Bouchard-Tremblay

Science popularizer