Monotopic sensory processing is something I touched on briefly in a much earlier article “Ten Things I Wish Everyone Knew About Autism and Sensory Processing”. However, I didn’t really do it justice back then, and since sensory issues have become a much bigger deal for me I thought I’d write another article.
Monotopic processing is very common in autistic people, and means that one sense tends to function to a greater degree than the others, in order to take in information and avoid sensory overload. For example: when someone is speaking to me and giving lots of difficult information that I need to retain, my other senses shut down. It’s not a deliberate process, nor is it something I have any control over. Like closing your eyes when you’re about to sneeze, it just happens. When I say that my other senses shut down I don’t mean that I stop being able to see or smell etc… those senses just fade into the background, meaning my eyes look blurry and unfocused. It seems like I’m not paying attention to the other person, when in fact I’m concentrating very hard on what they’re saying.
This often got me into trouble at school. Teachers would say things like “look at me! You’re not looking at me when I’m talking to you!”. When I started to look at them it was swiftly followed by “listen to me! You’re not listening to me when I’m talking to you!” One teacher in particular sometimes refused to speak to me unless I gave him direct eye contact, something which many autistic people avoid because it sends us into “fight or flight” mode (in the animal kingdom the animals only use direct eye contact if they are sizing each other up for a fight, and this instinct is embedded in our limbic system). When I was a child I couldn’t explain why I couldn’t look and listen at the same time because I just didn’t have the ability to communicate that eloquently. I also had no idea what monotopic processing was. I just knew I was a bit of a wierdo.
From this point of view, I might have been better off in a special school. Had I gone somewhere that catered specifically to autistic children, the teachers might have known what monotopic processing was and done their teaching in a style I could learn from instead of trying (unsuccessfully) to mould me into a neurotypical student. However, I’m very glad I went to a mainstream school. I was able to learn about socialising and the expectations of the wider world through my neurotypical peers. Mainstream school provided me with lots of useful anecdotes for my blog and my training sessions. It also put me on the right path to university.
I didn’t have many problems with monotopic processing when I was at uni. I tended to take copious notes during lectures, meaning I could avoid making eye contact with my lecturer and it was far easier for me to retain information. My course (creative writing and drama) was largely made up of seminars, tutorials and independent study, so I didn’t have to deal with the crowded, noisy lecture theatres that some students are forced to cope with. Also, I found Edge Hill University to be far more patient and tolerant than my secondary school. Instead of shouting at me for not looking at her, my support worker simply wrote in a report ‘Gwen often looks like she’s not listening, but she always is.’ A little support and understanding makes a huge difference. I went from struggling to get Bs and Cs at secondary school, to achieving a 1st at uni, despite the severe mental health problems I had during second year.
The only time I recall monotopic processing being an issue was when I applied for a job as a student guide. After a day of interviews, presentations and group projects I was told that I didn’t get the job because, among other reasons, ‘you looked out of the window during my presentation which suggests you are easily distracted’. Of course, the real reason my eyes were glazed over and facing the window was I was focusing on the sound of my interviewers voice, as I could only process the information she gave me monotopically. I was tempted to reply to my feedback with this information, but since I had already disclosed my Asperger’s Syndrome, in the end I decided not to pursue the matter further.
At the moment I try to ensure I’m giving people direct eye contact, even if it means my sight is the only sense that’s functioning properly. I’ve discovered that in certain social situations, such as job interviews, funerals and dating, it’s far more valuable to make people think I’m listening than to actually listen. (Some people get upset by a lack of eye contact, or assume I’m not looking at them because I dislike them). Of course, this technique wouldn’t work if I was at a university lecture, or being given complex instructions on how to fix the washing machine, but it works most of the time.
So why is monotopic processing still causing problems for me? In the past few years I’ve become over-sensitive in just about every sense. My dominant sense used to be sight, and I experienced terrible light sensitivity. When I left the house on a sunny day it felt like a red hot needle was piercing both my retinas. On a normal day I was constantly squinting and shielding my eyes with my hands. It got to the point where I’d open the curtains and think- nope. Too bright. I’m staying at home today. Eventually my Dad took me to buy a pair of sunglasses, which I started to ware every day in order to deal with the light sensitivity. Gradually, I became less and less sensitive to light.
However, my sensitivity to sound has rocketed upwards in the last few months, and I’ve started to have panic attacks when I’m in places that contain lots of different, repetitive sounds, such as a train station during rush hour. Today my Mum was shocked when standing on the opposite side of the room to me, she scratched her face and I could hear the sound of finger nails against skin. Sound has obviously become my dominant sense, so I’ve bought a pair of ear defenders in order to reduce the anxiety this causes. They don’t make me deaf; they just reduce the background noise so that I’m able to focus on a single conversation when I’m in a loud, crowded area like a night club or a coffee shop. However, I’m reluctant to wear my ear defenders longer than a few minutes at a time. This is because I believe that wearing sunglasses constantly has changed my monotopic processing, causing sound to become the dominant sense instead of sight.
A few weeks ago I was in a noisy, brightly lit theatre wearing my sunglasses. The noise was really bothering me, and upon taking off my sunglasses I found that sound faded into the background, but my eyes were aching and I wanted to shield them from the harsh electrical light. I put my sunglasses back on, and instantly the discomfort from the light diminished but the discomfort from the sound returned. I realised I process sensory information monotopically far more often that I’d thought, and was stuck choosing between two equally uncomfortable sensations Luckily by that time the play was about to start, so I wouldn’t be stuck in a noisy crowd for very long.
So what should I do now? I could start wearing my ear defenders all the time along with my sunglasses, and for a while I would be much more comfortable and less prone to panic attacks and sensory overload. But eventually something else would probably become my dominant sense. I might not be able to stand being touched, or start hyperventilating every time I smelled something. I’ve got this vision of myself in a few years’ time, trapped at home, unable to leave the house without putting a full length card board box over my head so that I’m cut off from all sensory information. It sounds hilarious when I put it like that, but in reality it would be horrible. The world is such a beautiful place, and I want to see, hear, smell, taste and touch at least some of it before I die.
I think I may have to start exposing myself to the sensory stimuli that makes me so uncomfortable. Perhaps if I do this, I’ll eventually become more tolerant to stimuli and less likely to start screaming just because I’ve heard a balloon pop. I’m already exposing myself a little more, as I’ve gone from working from home to doing two part time jobs in different locations, meaning I have to cope with busy trains, bright lights and screaming children. At first I was shocked by how exhausted this made me. When I’ve been out all day (regardless of whether it’s working, socialising or just hanging round town on my own) I feel so wiped out and exhausted I want to spend all of the next day in bed. At first I hated myself for being so lazy. But I guess this only makes sense, as when I’m in a new environment my brain is going at 1000 miles a minute, desperately trying to process every tiny, irrelevant piece of sensory information most neurotypicals could easily ignore. For me, walking through a crowded supermarket is the sensory equivalent of sprinting up a hill whilst doing advanced maths problems, juggling, reading War and Peace and singing Shakespeare’s sonnets in the order they were written to the tune of “God Save the Queen”. And I cannot turn my senses off. I can only reduce their ability to function with things like sunglasses and ear defenders.