8 everyday activities with sensory difficulties.

You do them everyday, mostly without thinking, but for our kids they cause great sensory discomfort. You’ve probably heard of sensory sensitivities to clothing and not liking the feel of certain fabrics or clothing tags. My sister used to dislike ‘lumpy socks’ if her socks were bunched up in her shoes, and other people only like loose or tight clothing. Our son particularly likes the feel of tight clothing as it feels like a big hug. Here are 8 everyday activities with sensory difficulties for our children that might surprise you.

1. Washing hair

Getting hair wet, washing hair, rinsing hair, the worry of getting water or soap in your eyes… washing hair is a huge issue in our house.

We developed the 30 second hair washing technique to get it done as quickly as possible. The kids count 10 seconds and that’s how long it takes to get hair all wet. Then they count the next 10 seconds and that’s how long we spend getting hair washing using a solid shampoo bar. The last 10 seconds counted out is time for rinsing (and being very careful not to get shampoo in their eyes). Then, it’s time to hop out, dry eyes with a towel, and we’re done. We also schedule hair washing day in the planner on Wednesdays and Sundays – if it’s on the schedule it has to get done because it’s part of the routine.

2. Getting in the bath

No one wants to have a bath. It takes up time when you could be doing something else fun. Plus one of our kids likes bubbles and the other doesn’t like any bubbles.

So, when we’re struggling to get them in the bath we use food colouring to make the water a bright blue, green or pink. Somehow that works to make the bath more interesting.

3. Brushing teeth

Another everyday activity with sensory difficulties is brushing teeth. Brushing teeth before bed is really heightening and not at all calming. Strong flavoured toothpaste makes our kids gag. One likes soft toothbrushes, the other likes electric toothbrushes that do all the work for you. Both of them really dislike the sensation of brushing back teeth.

4. Nail cutting

Well, you probably don’t do this everyday. But it’s still personal care that has a lot of sensory barriers. Our son doesn’t like his nails being cut at all – it tickles, he’s scared of being cut, it hurts.

The only way we can get nails cut is to distract with watching TV. Using an emery block also works – he can smooth off rough bits of nail by himself and doesn’t mind the sensation from the emery as much as the nail scissors.

5. Putting hair up (or not)

Our daughter doesn’t like the feeling of her hair being up in a pony tail or plaits. She doesn’t like hair ties and says it feels like it’s pulling on her hair and hurts. Her hair gets cut in a short bob so it doesn’t need to go up at school.

Our son likes the feeling on his hair covering his head and face and doesn’t like short hair. He likes the feeling of hair covering his ears and protecting them and wants long hair on his neck and ears.

6. Dressing for the weather

Our son only wants to wear hoodies and trackpants. Even in summer. He likes having all his body covered in clothes. Just like his hair, he likes hoods that can go over his head and cover his neck and ears. He prefers zip up hoodies to clothing that goes over his head. His preference is for light grey coloured clothing only. He mostly refuses to wear shorts. He will wear trackpants even on the hottest summer day.

Our daughter doesn’t like clothes and will happily wear shorts and t-shirt even in winter. She always removes her jumper and doesn’t like too many layers on her.

7. Going to the toilet

There’s something about toilets that causes lots of sensory aversion. It’s an everyday activity with sensory difficulties – it’s smelly, it’s boring, it’s a weird feeling having things leave your body. Being bored is one of the biggest challenges our kids have, so there always has to be reading in the loo. If there’s not, it’s amazing how much leg swinging, door banging, animal noises and loud singing occurs while doing their business.

8. Putting on sunscreen

It feels sticky and gross on your skin. It’s wet, it smells and it’s squishy. It gets in your eyes and stings. Sunscreen is so tricky to get onto kids. Sometimes we just don’t go out when the uv is high because sunscreen is too tricky. Roll on sunscreen or spray sunscreen does seem to be more acceptable that pump pack sunscreen.

BONUS Environmental Sensitivities

We’ve talked about different everyday activities with sensory difficulties. But what about things in the environment that you may not be able to control?

People with autism often have light sensitivity and prefer darker, dimmer lighting over bright lights. This can be tricky in a workplace or school where you have no control over the lighting for a large group of people in the same space. Maybe this is why our son likes wearing hoodies all the time? Or why other children like crawling under blankets and into cubbies?

Loud noises is also a common environmental trigger for over-stimulation. Our kids really don’t like hand dryers in toilets, yelling and teachers with loud energetic voices, or when other people play music or talk loudly. This can make classrooms and schools really exhausting places to be. But noise cancelling headphones can help with reducing noise from everyday activities.

If in doubt, HALT-U

When kids start to get big feelings that might be related to sensory discomfort, try checking for HALT-U:

H – are you hungry or thirsty?
A – are you angry or frustrated?
L – are you needing to loo?
T – are you tired or needing a rest?
U – are you uncomfortable (hot/cold)?

They may not be able to identify what it is at first, but just have a strange sense of being off. You may need to tell them what it is they are feeling e.g. you are feeling off because you are need to go to the toilet. In many ways, sorting out sensory discomfort with autistic children is similar to dealing with a newborn baby crying. Check hunger, thirst, nappy, tiredness and temperature.

Where you can, be proactive about nipping big emotions in the bud before they hit. Have a plate of snacks and a drink bottle readily available on the table all day. Only plan one busy activity out socialising with people each day then have the rest of the day to recharge and have low sensory input. Avoid or work around sensory triggers where possible. Don’t be afraid to call quits if you need to – one night without brushing teeth or washing hair is not the end of the world.


There are a surprising number of everyday activities with sensory difficulties. Sensory over-stimulation is a big deal for many children with autism. This can make navigating the world tricky, as most things are arranged for neurotypical access and not for neurodivergents. That being said, there are more sensory friendly movie sessions, museums special events, and supermarket quiet hour shopping times that are inclusive of sensory needs.

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