PDD-NOS and Unusual Sensitivities

Heightened sensitivity to noise

If the sound of fingernails scraping against a chalkboard sends shivers down your spine, you can relate to the unusual sensitivities people with PDD-NOS often have. The challenge is that the sensitive responses are reactions to everyday things. Something as simple as a shirt tag can be distracting and downright uncomfortable for a person with this mild form of autism.

It helps to recognize that messages that come through the five senses can be irritating to some people. Sometimes the unusual sensitivities can manifest as unusual behavior.

PDD-NOS and Unusual Sensitivities Overview

Yale School of Medicine notes that pervasive developmental disorder, not-otherwise-specified is a "subthreshold" category because no specific guidelines are in place for diagnosis. This is why many consider a PDD-NOS diagnosis as a "catchall" for individuals who have clinical impairments but do not meet the criteria for autism, Rett's syndrome, Asperger's syndrome or childhood disintegrative disorder.

Interestingly, two things stand out in cases of PDD-NOS: social impairment and unusual sensitivities, according to the Yale School of Medicine. This means that many people with the condition are more likely to have problems with sensory input and social interactions than with other symptoms of autism.

Types of Sensitivities

It is common for people to have aversions to certain textures and sounds. Some may not like bright lights, and certain smells and tastes can cause certain people to cringe. These are normal, personal responses. People with PDD-NOS often have a heightened sensitivity to stimuli that may go unnoticed to the typical person.

Unusual sensitivities can affect each one of the five senses; some may experience heightened sensitivity to a certain sense while others may experience problems with multiple senses.


The flickering glow of a fluorescent light may go unnoticed by most people, but a person with PDD-NOS might find the subtle movement to be very distracting, or even uncomfortable. Visual sensitivities can include aversions to seeing things move as well.


Sounds like the nails moving down a chalkboard can have a remarkable impact on a person's sensory system. Some sounds that seem innocuous can be equally unbearable for a person on the autism spectrum. Consider common noises that most people wouldn't notice.

  • Clock ticking in the background
  • Cars moving on the street
  • Wind rustling leaves
  • Furnace, fans or other motors
  • Noises in other rooms
  • Tactile and Taste

Unusual sensitivities to texture can include a number of different things. Common everyday items and materials can cause discomfort.

  • Tags in shirts
  • Fabrics
  • Heat and cold
  • Doll hair
  • Twine
  • Yarn

Aversion to certain tastes may be present, and sometimes people with PDD-NOS have difficulty tolerating textures of some foods.


Scents that are pleasurable to many can be distracting to some people on the autism spectrum. This is why many therapists who work with kids with autistic disorders avoid wearing perfume or cologne during sessions.

  • Air fresheners
  • Foods
  • Deodorant and antiperspirant
  • Household cleaners
  • Soap and shampoo

Sometimes, sensitivities to smells appear in public places. Consider the different smells you encounter while walking through a mall, from the coffee shop to the cosmetic counter. Combine the scents with lights, sounds and tactile input, and you can understand why some people on the spectrum may have difficulty controlling behavior in busy public places.

Dealing with Sensitivities

People with autism often use self stimulatory behaviors, like hand flapping, to help deal with feeling overwhelmed and overly stimulated. The repetitive stereotyped behaviors may help block out the sensory input. "Stimming" as it's called can help, but it isn't always socially acceptable. Sensory integration therapy can help replace disruptive stims with behaviors that are less stereotyped.

If unusual sensitivities are disruptive to you or a loved one, find out if you can work sensory integration into the treatment plan. Discuss aversions to textures, foods and other input with a doctor or therapist. In some cases, desensitization can help alleviate the problem; this is a systematic approach that takes time and guidance.

People have sensitivities across the board, but when they interfere with daily life, it's time to get help. Being hypersensitive to surroundings can be common for people with PDD-NOS, but the problem can be addressed with treatment.  

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PDD-NOS and Unusual Sensitivities