Autism and the Sensory System: Part 3 of 8

Autism and the Sensory System
Part Three: Processing Sensory Information

Besides differences in the way sensory information comes to autistics, once there, the information may be processed differently, too.

Although there are several ways people on the spectrum process information, three ways seem to impact them most (Attwood, 2007):

Linear processing happens when information is processed using one sense at a time.

This explains why even though a student was standing on the playground when a police car with sirens and flashing lights went by, he may not connect the sound of the siren to the police car, simply because it was not processed as a whole. Instead, it was processed in a linear fashion – first the sound of the siren, then the sight of the flashing lights on the police car, then the movement of the police car as it traveled down the street.  The student goes inside and reports that recess is scary. After all, that police car came out of nowhere and really startled him. Will that happen every time the bell rings at the end of recess? His assistant said nothing unusual happened during recess.

It takes longer to process information one sense at a time rather than when individual senses are processed simultaneously as a whole experience.

Here’s another example: When receiving a handout in class, a student with autism might

  • first have to process the feel of the paper in his hand,
  • then move the paper to his desk,
  • after which he can pop up the picture of the pencil in his mind,
  • which enables him to get out a pencil, and only then,
  • might he be able to attend to the worksheet.

If the verbal instructions have already been given, the student has missed them because his linear processing meant that he first processed feel, then sight, and then sound.  If the sound – the teacher’s verbal directions – happened before the student’s processing was up to sound, he very likely missed hearing the instruction.

Most often when this happens to students, they are told to pay attention or to focus. The truth is, he was paying attention and was focusing on the information deemed relevant in the moment by his linear sensory processing.

Mono-channel processing refers to using a preferred sense to process all information.

It is not that we make a conscious choice and prefer one sense over another; rather, our neurology dictates this by making information available to us in this way. Thus, we may not be able to process the words you are saying if we have been told to look at you (eye contact) while you are saying them. We may only have one channel available with which to process incoming information. This forces a choice. We can look at you, giving you the eye contact you deem necessary OR we can listen to the words you are saying.

In a classroom if the teacher indicates she wants students to listen to the important information she is about to say, this student will automatically turn away from his teacher SO THAT HE WILL BE ABLE to hear the instruction.

If he can only process using one channel, it makes sense that if it is important to hear what the teacher is saying, this student will not look at the teacher so that he indeed might hear! See how compliant it is for this student to quickly turn away from the center of instruction when his teacher says, “Pay attention to what I am saying!”

Nondiscriminatory processingrefers to all incoming information getting processed equally.

Individuals with autism do not consciously have any choice about this either. Nor do they decide how to process information in any given situation. It just happens!

For example, when an autistic processes incoming information in a nondiscriminatory style, this may mean that while he is in the library,

  • the hum of computers,
  • the sparkles seen from fluorescent lights,
  • the reflection of the light on the table top,
  • the movement of other students,
  • the various smells of old, dried paper and book bindings,
  • along with feeling too warm and
  • having one shoelace tied more tightly than the other,

all take his attention just as saliently as the purpose for which he is in the library – to find and check out a book or DVD.

With each bit of information coming in equally salient, it is difficult to know where to focus one’s attention. I think It is truly amazing that anything at all gets accomplished when a student has a nondiscriminatory style of processing (Endow, 2011)!

– from Autistically Thriving: Reading Comprehension, Conversational Engagement, and Living a Self-Determined Life Based on Autistic Neurology.

Note: Approximately once a week a new blog in this series will be released.

Autism and the Sensory System

Part One: Introduction
Part Two: Taking In Sensory Information
Part Three: Processing Sensory Information
Part Four: Processing Delays
Part Five: Storing and Retrieving Information
Part Six: Categorization of Information
Part Seven: Critical Mass Development
Part Eight: The Role of Interoception, The Eighth Sensory System



Attwood, T. (2007). The Complete Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Endow, J. (2019).  Autistically Thriving: Reading Comprehension, Conversational Engagement, and Living a Self-Determined Life Based on Autistic Neurology. Lancaster, PA: Judy Endow.

Endow, J. (2012). Learning the Hidden Curriculum: The Odyssey of One Autistic Adult. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.

Endow, J. (2006).  Making Lemonade: Hints for Autism’s Helpers. Cambridge, WI: CBR Press.

Endow, J. (2013).  Painted Words: Aspects of Autism Translated. Cambridge, WI: CBR Press.

Endow, J. (2009).  Paper Words: Discovering and Living With My Autism. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.

Endow, J. (2009).  Outsmarting Explosive Behavior: A Visual System of Support and Intervention for Individuals With Autism Spectrum Disorders. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.

Endow, J. (2010).  Practical Solutions for Stabilizing Students With Classic Autism to Be Ready to Learn: Getting to Go. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.

Myles, B. S., Endow, J., & Mayfield, M. (2013).  The Hidden Curriculum of Getting and Keeping a Job: Navigating the Social Landscape of Employment. Shawnee Mission, KS: AAPC Publishing.