Types of sensory disabilities

Different types of sensory disabilities affect one or more senses; sight, hearing, smell, touch, taste or spatial awareness.

What is a sensory disability?

A sensory disability is a disability of the senses (e.g. sight, hearing, smell, touch, taste).

As 95% of the information about the world around us comes from our sight and hearing, a sensory disability can affect how a person gathers information from the world around them.

Types of sensory disabilities

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD)

Autism spectrum disorders are a lifelong developmental disability. They affect the way someone interacts with the world around them, as well as with other people. Around 1 in 200 Aussies have autism (ABS, 2012), and boys are four times more likely to have autism than girls.

The effects of autism are wide ranging and can include difficulties in social interaction and communication, restricted and repetitive interests and behaviours, and sensitivity to sensory experiences – noise, light, touch etc. As autism can be very variable, the word ‘spectrum’ describes the range of difficulties that someone with autism may experience.

Autism is a complex disability and cause is not well understood. As far as we know there’s no single cause. Instead, it’s likely to be due to a combination of environmental and genetic factors (Mayo Clinic).

What research has told us is, there do seem to be a few factors that can increase the risk of autism, such as:

  • Your child’s sex: autism is four times more common in boys than girls.
  • Family history: families who have a child with autism have an increased risk of having another child with the disorder.
  • Other disorders: children with certain medical conditions have a higher risk of autism, or autism-like symptoms (fragile X syndrome, tuberous sclerosis, Tourette syndrome and Rett syndrome to name a few).
  • Extremely pre-term babies: babies born under 26 weeks may have a higher risk of autism.

Find out more:

Myths about autism
Four things that don’t cause autism
Questions you always wanted to ask a person with autism


Blindness and low vision

A person is considered legally blind if they cannot see at six metres what someone with normal vision can see at 60 metres or if their field of vision is less than 20 degrees in diameter (Vision Australia).

A person is said to have low vision when they have permanent vision loss which affects their day to day and cannot be corrected with glasses (Vision Australia).

Blindness and low vision can occur as a result of a number of different diseases, conditions, or accidents. Some eye conditions are congenital (present at or near birth), while others are caused later in life. Some specific causes of vision loss can include an injury to the eye, eye defects, albinism, macular degeneration, diabetes, glaucoma, cataracts, and tumors.

Whilst some forms of vision loss can be prevented and even reversed, others may develop as people age – it is more common in those over the age of 65.


Hearing loss and deafness

Hearing loss, also known as a hearing impairment, is the partial or total inability to hear. If someone has very little or no hearing, the term ‘deaf’ may be used.

Damage to any part of the external, middle, or inner ear can cause hearing loss which can range from being mild to profound.

Causes of hearing loss can be quite varied and can include problems with the bones within the ear, damage to the cochlear nerve, exposure to noise, genetic disorders, exposure to diseases in utero, age, trauma, and other diseases.


Sensory processing disorder

Sensory processing disorder is a condition where a person has trouble receiving and responding to information that comes in through the senses. This may mean they misinterpret everyday sensory information, such as touch, sound, and movement.

When someone has sensory processing disorder, they are able to sense the information, however, the brain perceives and analyses the information in an unusual way. It may affect one sense only or it may affect multiple senses.

Some people with sensory processing disorder are oversensitive to things in their environment. Common sounds may be painful or overwhelming, and the feel of certain textures on the skin may be very uncomfortable.

It is debated whether sensory processing disorder can be a disorder on its own, however it is accepted as a common characteristic of other disabilities including Autism Spectrum Disorders, dyslexia, MS, and Tourette syndrome.

Find out more:

Facts about sensory hypersensitivity