On sense and sensitivity: sensory phenomena in autism

A man with his eyes closed being splashed with paint. A pink paint cloud appears on the right.

The ways in which the autistic brain manages and responds to sensory input are remarkable. Some liken their experience to living and feeling like their senses are turned up to maximum – amplified beyond the boundaries of comfort, and others experience pain when exposed to certain types of sensory input. Then, there is me, who gags at the feeling of certain food textures between her teeth and on her tongue – forgoing all table manners and causing my house guests to become unhinged.

An autistic person’s behaviors with regards to the sensory experience itself can be divided into sensory seeking and sensory avoiding. I might self-stimulate by running my fingertips, repetitively, across a rough patch of carpet, so that I can stop every once in a while and delight in how numb they have become. I might thrust my hand into a pot of uncooked rice, because the grains feel too smooth and cool on my hands to reject the desire. In avoiding certain sensory experiences, I might mute the television as the commercial break runs, or step away from my desk as you linger, discussing the ins-and-outs of your weekend right beside me.

When I was very young, I refused to wear underwear with a seam in the crotch. My mother shopped specifically for my sensory needs and de-tagged everything I wore. I shunned denim, corduroy, and I wouldn’t wear socks unless they were forced upon me. Leggings with stirrups were a torture device, and a crop-top under a shirt? I hope you don’t have anywhere important to be this morning, because it isn’t happening.  I bit (and still bite) my nails, so rather than being a tool to keep my fingers warm and snug, a pair of gloves were things on which hang-nails became snagged and painful.

I adore animals. When I started school, a local farm brought some dairy cows over to visit us for the day we were going to learn about where milk comes from. When my senses are overloaded, things tend to go south very quickly for me, and by association almost everybody else in the room. My meltdowns are a slow-burn; a simmer, boil, and then climatic cataclysm. There are few survivors. Anticipating this possibility, my mother, with my input, prepared a protective outfit – a hazmat suit if you will, and the next morning, sent me off to milk cows.

When you watch videos and view pictures of animals, no matter how obsessively, it’s not at all obvious how terrible they smell. Cows are also pretty huge and very often accompanied by flies, which are skilled in disturbing every one of my five senses simultaneously. So, when my turn came for milking, I had to be coaxed, quite extensively into having a go. Armed with my gloves, and teacher by my side, I jumped in and it wasn’t so bad. Being autistic, one thing you realise quite quickly about tasks and processes is that they are never in reality quite as neat or contained as they sound when they are being explained to you, or as you dream of and anticipate them.

Milking is a messy business and not every drop makes it into the bucket below. A fair amount of it soaked my gloves in fact, and I began to simmer. I don’t remember much else about that day other than my father being called to collect me – the teachers were incredulous and the other kids afraid. Sometimes, 24 years on, as I tackle cleaning the stove, minimal contact and the soiled cloth at arms length and belly full of nausea, I think about this experience and I shudder. I cannot cope with how a lot of things feel on my hands.

I have a pair of noise-cancelling headphones that travel with me everywhere I go. They save me from the sounds of car engines, sirens, horns, dogs, barking, people shouting, and the conversation three seats away from me on an over-crowded train that smells like the height of summer. The mood I am in as I sit at my desk in the morning will depend largely on whether I have had someone sit next to me on the bus during my morning commute. I have an unusual response to human voices – so much so that for a very long time in childhood I would only watch shows in which the characters did not speak. Or I muted the TV.  In sensory terms, sounds either violently startle me or prevent me from focusing on absolutely anything else. I frequently hear things that others don’t, and without a steady beat to hone in on, the cacophony of sounds that comes with pubic city life, or the sound of my door buzzer, is enough to disable me completely.

But it isn’t all bad.

When I hear music, I hear it with my entire body, and some sounds feel so good it is surreal. I have perfect pitch and keeping rhythm or time comes as naturally to me as breathing.  I cannot wear sunglassses lest my mood plummets, but I can colour-match with remarkable ease and intuition. I am so good at spot-the-difference puzzles I could probably do them in my sleep. I can smell who has walked into the room with no other clues as to their identity. Ultimately, and assuming they are not overloaded, I can use my senses to navigate the world with remarkable precision and creative pursuits are so rich a sensory experience I am remarkably adept at them.

Many autistic people manage a sensory diet, consisting of a daily activity plan intended to provide the sensory input they may need in order to remain focused and comfortable throughout the day. The diet will aim to strike a balance between diminishing the sensory experiences that cause distress, and indulging in the ones that bring pleasure of relief.  The diet may include scheduled times in which to stim, periods of spinning or hanging upside down for periods of time in order to stimulate vestibular receptors, or use of white noise machines to manage the sound of the surrounding environment. A person may snack on crunchy foods or carry sensory toys with them for relief when overwhelmed.

If I could request one thing that would make my own sensory experience a more comfortable one, it would be acknowledgement. If I may be permitted two things, then the second would be understanding. ‘Fussy,’ ‘melodramatic,’  ‘scornful,’ and ‘too sensitive’ are labels I have carried with me on my journey through life, and they undermine and diminish the very real impact that external inputs have on my body, brain, senses, and most importantly, well-being. I was not diagnosed with autism in childhood, and those labels are, in many ways, the lens through which I came to know and see myself. It was never explained to me how my neurology was responsible for the way in which I see, hear, and feel the world, nor the ways in which I might diminish the effects that stimuli have on my body and mind.

Photo by Juan Pablo Arenas on Pexels.com

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2 Responses

  1. Your last paragraph rings so true to me! I wish more people would understand that not everyone experiences the same sensory input in the same way. The same noise can be almost negligible to one person and unbearably loud to another. Just think of how people respond to a baby crying. Everyone is different. It would be nice not to be called “overly dramatic” just because my brain can’t filter and process sensory input as well as yours.

    1. Lol. People constantly accuse me of “trying to look cool” for wearing sunglasses everywhere, and “trying to be different” for wearing earplugs all the time. NTs just project their own fakery and desperate need for attention onto everyone, which makes them incapable of conceiving that others might ever have legitimate reasons for anything we do. Their whole lives revolve around “being dramatic” and “trying to get attention”, so in their typically obtuse fashion, they assume that everybody else’s must, too.

      I find them unbearable.

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