Sensory Processing is something I’ve wanted to write about for a long time. I would say it’s probably one of the most misunderstood aspects of autism, and for that reason it can be the most difficult. Lately I’ve been struggling with being oversensitive to certain stimuli. If I leave the house without putting on sunglasses, the sunlight feels like a white hot needle being inserted into my eyes. If I leave the house with sunglasses on, complete strangers stare at me, and assume they have the right to ask me why or earth I’ve got shades on.
Who’s that weirdo? Is she a vampire or a member of the matrix?
I find this attitude narrow minded, hurtful and just plain silly. I don’t chose to wear sunglasses and ear plugs to look cool. I do it because at the moment the world is a baffling cacophony of noise, light, colour and texture. Reducing the stimuli is the only way I can survive.
Of course, sensory processing is different for everyone on the autism spectrum. When I was a child I was highly under sensitive. This meant my pain receptors didn’t always work properly, and I could be ill or injured for weeks before my parents realised. Now I’ve become so over sensitive that if I prick my finger with a needle I’ll probably scream the house down. I’m not trying to be awkward or difficult. That’s just the way I process things.
1) Some Autistic People are Under Sensitive to Sensory Stimuli
Being under sensitive to means it’s harder for your body to process sensory information. Music sounds quieter; food doesn’t taste very strong, changes in temperature aren’t that noticeable… etcetera. If someone with autism is under sensitive, they will seek out sensory stimulation by doing things like turning up their music, eating strong tasting food or wearing nothing but a tee-shirt even though it’s cold outside. It’s not that these people prefer stronger sensations to neurotypicals. Rather, what feels strong to a neurotypical will feel normal to an under sensitive person, and what feels normal to a neurotypical will feel weak.
2) Some Autistic People are Over Sensitive
This is the opposite of under sensitive. People who are over sensitive to sensory stimuli have a very keen sense of hearing, smell, sight, taste and touch. Their bodies are working overtime to process all the sensory information they receive. Music will sound bafflingly loud, and they won’t be able to filter out any other sounds they hear in the back ground. Bland foods will taste very strong to them, and the slightest change in temperature could leave them boiling or shivering. Rather than seeking out stimulation, these people will avoid it. For example: I often see the children I work with putting their fingers in their ears because it’s too loud for them, or taking off their clothing because they cannot stand the way the fabric feels against their skin.
3) Most Autistic People are Both
I described being under and over sensitive in two separate paragraphs because that was easier. But most people on the spectrum are a mixture of both, with different senses working at different rates. For example: I am highly sensitive to light and sound, and can easily go into a meltdown if it feels too bright or I cannot identify the source of a noise. But my sense of smell is very poor, and I often have to burn four or five sticks of incense at once before I notice the smell. I can sometimes be under sensitive to touch, and break things when I am simply trying to grip them. But I am over sensitive to touch just as often as I’m under sensitive.
4) Sensory Processing Depends on a Variety of Factors, Including Mental Health
When I had depression there were times when I was very under sensitive. I couldn’t taste the spice in my curry, I didn’t know it was raining until my house-mate pointed out that I was soaking wet, and everything looked grey. I know that sounds like an awful, cheesy metaphor but it’s true. I was so under sensitive to light that through my eyes everything did look grey. Now that I have anxiety disorder I’m over sensitive. The spice in my curry is too hot, a single drop of rain leaves me freezing and everything looks really bright. There are lots of factors that affect sensory processing. If I’m tired or ill I’m less likely to respond to sensory stimuli and will have to turn the tv up louder. If I’ve had a particularly stressful day, something that normally wouldn’t bother me could easily send me into sensory overload. It’s different for everyone.
5) Being Under Sensitive Can Make You a Danger to Yourself
Earlier I mentioned that because I was under sensitive as a child, I often couldn’t tell if I was injured or sick. You’d think having a high pain threshold would make you tough, but it doesn’t, it just makes you a danger to yourself. For example: I work with an autistic child who is very under-sensitive to touch: she used to seek out stimulation by literally climbing as high as she could and throwing herself off the ledge. Although this child loved the stimulation falling gave her, it was terrifying to watch her doing something that could seriously injure her. I’ve also heard about an autistic man who puts his arm through glass panes because he likes the sensation of breaking glass, and another person on the spectrum who broke their arm in several places without realising because they were not processing the pain. If someone you know is under sensitive to stimuli, try to create a safe environment that doesn’t contain things they can use to damage themselves. If you yourself are under sensitive, please find safer ways to get the stimulation you need. At work, I deal with the girl who loves falling by wrestling with her, or dragging her around a cushioned area by her wrists and ankles. This gives her the deep touch stimulation she craves, but in a controlled manner where I can limit the potential for injury.
6) Being Over Sensitive Can Make You too Afraid to Leave the House
When sensory processing gets out of hand, being over sensitive can make you too afraid to leave the house. Many times I’ve decided to work from my bedroom, closed the blinds, dimmed the lights and turned up my I-pod to drown out any other sounds. I simply couldn’t face going to an office or a library, because that would involve dealing with harsh bright sunlight, countless people staring at me and the little noises we hear every day building up create one huge symphony from hell. It sounds pathetic, but it’s true. (I will suggest methods for avoiding sensory overload later on in this article).
7) Sensory Overload is Absolute Hell
For me, sensory overload is extremely difficult and can lead to panic attacks or meltdowns. Since a lot of people don’t know about sensory overload, some choose to treat it as a toddler tantrum or a plea for attention. This can be particularly problematic with autistic children, as like any child, they are bound to have normal tantrums too. There is a huge difference between a tantrum (I want that toy!) and a meltdown (I can’t take anymore I’m in hell!) Most parents would agree that they can tell the difference between the cry of a cross child and the cry of a hurt child. Strangers can’t, yet they are so quick to judge said child as spoilt or whining. Please, try not to judge what you don’t understand.
8) Hugging Doesn’t Always Help
When an autistic person is experiencing sensory overload hugging them might not help. In my case, it’s one of the worst things you could do. During an episode of sensory overload all my senses are extremely heightened, including touch. This means that if someone taps me lightly on the arm it feels like I’m being punched. Also, I tend to deal with overload by shutting my eyes and putting my fingers in my ears to drown out excess stimuli. If I feel somebody grab me from behind and cannot see or hear them, it’s absolutely terrifying. Deep down I know I’m safe, but my gut reaction is usually ‘SHIT! Someone’s trying to kidnap me!’ I understand that when you see someone in distress your impulse is to rush up and hug them. In ordinary circumstances I love hugs. But when I or someone like me is experiencing sensory overload a hug just isn’t helpful. If you are unsure whether an autistic person will be comfortable with a hug or not, don’t hover awkwardly. Just ask them.
9) There Are Lots of Ways to Reduce the Risk Of Sensory Overload
There are lots of ways to reduce the risk of sensory overload. I struggle with light sensitivity, and have dealt with this by buying the strongest pair of sunglasses I could find and wearing them whenever I leave the house, regardless of how bright others think it is. I also listen to my I pod when I’m out in public, the volume turned up loud to drown out any other sounds. Music doesn’t bother me at all, because it’s just one sound and I am in complete control of the volume. I know others with autism who are particularly sensitive to touch, and get round this problem by avoiding certain fabrics, not wearing makeup and warning the people they meet that they don’t like hugs. Avoiding hugs or using your I-pod to drown out conversation might come across as anti-social. But I’d rather be anti-social than have a complete meltdown in public.
10) We Are Not Being Difficult, We Are Trying to Survive
Lots of people don’t understand sensory overload. When I ask them to shut the curtains or turn down the music they can get very cross, assuming I’m just trying to ruin the atmosphere or spoil their fun. But I’m not. I’m trying to avoid going into meltdown. I’m trying to survive.