Sensory aspects

autistic traits continued...

istockphoto-186830255-170667a.jpeg

A subject so important, it gets its own page!

 

Continuing on the subject of autistic traits from the previous page, this page talks about arguably, one of the biggest aspects of the autistic experience - that of our sensory differences. I have a suspicion, that this subject is even more important than we currently understand.

 

Although (surprisingly) this one factor affects every single autistic trait mentioned previously, as well as every basic human aspect of daily living, it has only recently been included in the diagnostic manuals. 

 

An individual autistic person's sensory profile can be both enriching and unbearable, often all at the same time. It dramatically affects how we feel (mentally and physically), how we perceive and interact with the world around us, and how we process and communicate information. 

This page is particularly relevant if you are a non-autistic parent of an autistic child. Why? Because you may not be aware of just how much our senses can affect us, or how behaviours that you observe in your child might simply be caused by sensory factors. If a person has no control over the pain that is being caused by one of their sensory sensitivities, they may have no way of communicating that to you. Or indeed, they may even be unaware of the cause of the pain themselves. Imagine how distressing this must be? 

This lack of control over the environment, combined with a lack of any means to communicate this pain, will inevitably result in the child trying to regulate themselves in other ways. This may be through increased, and possibly even inappropriate stimming, aggression, anger, distress, meltdowns and shutdowns.

What are these differences?

Although there may be more human senses which we do not yet understand, the main ones are sight, sound, taste, smell and touch, plus introspection, proprioception, balance and spatial awareness. Introspection involves being in tune with our inner selves and able to identify our own mental and emotional processes. Proprioception is the ability to be able to precisely sense our body’s position, movement and actions.    

  

Autistic people may experience any of these senses too much or too little. For example, we may be hyper-sensitive (too sensitive) to sounds, or particular textures, whilst hypo-sensitive (under sensitive) to our emotions, pain or our proprioception. We may have difficulty adjusting to temperature changes, or not be aware of them at all.

 

It feels as though, instead of our brains filtering out sensory input, everything is allowed to rush through all at once. They are then immediately escalated to the ‘extreme awareness department’ of our brains - often, taking the place of more important information.

We are not always sensory avoidant either. Sometimes we seek out strong sensory input - something known as sensory seeking. This helps to regulate our emotions, improve our executive functioning, or simply, fill us with joy!

 

In addition, it’s not uncommon for us to have additional challenges with sensory processing disorders, which may cause us to misinterpret our sensory input, or not be aware of it.

We can even be both hyper-sensitive and hypo-sensitive to the same thing at different times or in different situations. For example, needing sunlight to be able to read, but needing dark glasses the rest of the time; or even being moderately sensitive to something one day, and highly reactive to it the next. The way we react to sensory input is highly variable and dependant on so many other things going on inside our brains and bodies at the same moment. 

 “I need to see something to learn it, because spoken words are like steam to me; they evaporate in an instant, before I have a chance to make sense of them. I don’t have instant-processing skills. Instructions and information presented to me visually can stay in front of me for as long as I need, and will be just the same when I come back to them later. Without this, I live the constant frustration of knowing that I’m missing big blocks of information and expectations, and am helpless to do anything about it.”

 

 - Ellen Notbohm, Ten Things Every Child with Autism Wishes You Knew 

What do sensory sensitivities feel like for us? 

 

While all of this may not sound so bad to non-autistic people, in everyday life it is a huge challenge for us and one which can be the most disabling. Take for example someone who is hypersensitive to sound: we might hear every little noise that others are naturally able to filter out and those noises will all be competing for our attention and processing power.  Furthermore, all the noises could be experienced at the loudest volume.  

  

To help you imagine what this might feel like to an autistic person, try to immerse yourself in this imaginary scenario...

You are trying to have a conversation with a friend over a coffee in a café.

 

If you are autistic, the sounds which are a mere general background hum to non-autistic people, may be experienced instead as a dreadful cacophony, and one where all noise is amplified. You are conscious of (though not by choice) the sound of every car, motorbike, lorry and bus on the street outside, as well as dogs barking and birds singing in the local neighbourhood. You are acutely aware of the other conversations going on in the café as well as the sounds from the kitchen. You hear doors opening, closing and squeaking, cups and glasses chinking, knives and forks scratching on plates, the sound of the rain and wind outside, the lights buzzing overhead, fans whirring, people chewing and sniffing and coughing …  

 

Now, imagine all that noise turned up to full volume in your head. Would you be able to concentrate on what the other person was saying and at the same time decipher not only their facial language, body language and tone of voice, but also monitor your own? 

 

Why leave it there? I'm just warming up!  Let’s add another common sensitivity – that of smell.

 

Imagine now, the cacophony and pain of all that noise, but you are also acutely aware of each and every smell in the area, as if it were being wafted right under your nostrils: food, drinks, people, doggy smells, cooking smells, body odours, someone’s perfume, musty clothes, stale cigarette smells, someone else’s aftershave, last week's curry night, your own deodorant...

 

Remember, you don’t have a filter or a smell processor, so it’s all building up into a big jumble of annoying (probably repulsive) and highly distracting smells.    

  

If that still isn’t enough to drastically drain your processing speed, let’s add some touch sensitivity.

 

Many autistic people have extreme aversions to certain textures and materials. You will have probably dressed yourself in sensory-appropriate clothing today, but what if you couldn’t? What if you have been dressed by someone else who doesn’t understand your sensory needs? Or what if you forgot to remove that sandpapery label in the new shirt you are wearing? What if that teeny-tiny piece of loose thread in your collar feels like a large pin jabbing you in the neck?  

 

I think by now you are probably getting the picture – that simple conversation in a café has already turned into an absolute and total sensory nightmare - one from which you wish to flee immediately!

The combined effect of this flood of sensory information is not only a major discomfort and distraction; by this point you will be feeling extremely irritable, totally unable to concentrate and completely overwhelmed.

 

Unfortunately, this is the reality for many autistic people in everyday life.

 

Headaches and migraines are a common feature in our daily lives and sensory sensitivities are one of the common contributors.  

 

Examples for each sense

Sound / hearing   

  • Hearing difficulties not explained by hearing tests. An example of this, is not being able to hear speech clearly in noisy environments, despite being overly sensitive to sound, or seeming to not acknowledge particular sounds.   

  • Sensitivity to sound, covering ears, or needing to wear headphones or ear defenders.

  • Aversion to firework noise, or sudden noise. Other commonly painful sounds are dogs barking, motorbikes, sirens, pots and pans ...

 

  • Distress in places where we can’t get away from the sound such as public places, crowds, supermarkets, public transport or places that echo such as public swimming pools.   

  • The converse may also be true: enjoying and seeking out crowded, noisy places or banging doors and objects repeatedly.  

  • Enjoying listening to the same music, or section of music over and over.   

  • Sleep difficulties due to either needing complete silence to sleep or needing music or white noise to sleep. 

  • Tinnitus. (The sensation of hearing ringing, buzzing, hissing, whistling or other sounds - can be intermittent or continuous.) 

  • Having a strong aversion or repulsion to certain foods, food textures, colours or flavours.   

  • Not being able to taste certain things.   

  • Nausea.   

  • Only eating a limited range of foods.   

  • Seeming ‘picky’ at meal times. Not tolerating different foods if they are touching or mixed together on the plate, or only eating certain foods separately, never together.   

  • Intestinal allergies and intolerances.   

  • Chewing or mouthing things.

  • Pica (Eating, mouthing or licking things that are not considered food.)   

  • Liking or craving the sensory input from very spicy foods, tart foods or other strong flavours.  

  • Not tolerating lumps in foods such as yoghurt, ice-cream or mashed potato.   

Taste

Smell

  • Being able to smell everything! Even when no one else can.   

  • A strong aversion to certain smells. Avoidance of perfume and aftershave counters in stores. Complaining about the smell of other people, their perfumes or their grooming products or avoiding certain friends or relatives. Needing extra attention to intimate hygiene in close relationships and sex. Avoiding certain places due to the smell, such as clinics and hospitals.   

  • Difficulty sleeping due to smell sensitivities.   

  • Being unable to concentrate because of smell sensitivity, or being easily distracted by smells.   

  • Changes in behaviour in response to sudden changes in laundry powder or softener.   

  • Toileting problems due to smell aversion.   

  • Sensitivity and reactions to smells such as chlorine at the swimming pool or cleaning products.  

  • Or the converse - having no sense of smell whatsoever. Licking things to replace a lack of smell. 

  • Strong sensory need, or an intense enjoyment for certain smells – even ones which other people find disgusting. Sniffing things or smelling toys.   

  • May seek out strong smelling toiletries such as shampoo, or prefer non-scented versions.   

Sight / vision

  • Sensitivity to light. Some of us need to wear sunglasses inside as well as outside the house and may prefer the curtains and blinds to be kept closed. Others may need a lot of natural light but are still sensitive to artificial light or bright light. We may have difficulty sleeping unless the room is completely dark.   

  • A strong sensory need for sparkly lights, neon lights, moving lights, lasers, fairy lights, fireworks etc.

  • A love of watching spinning tops and colourful windmills. 

  • Experiencing nature and colour more intensely than others.   

  • Vision problems such as distorted vision or fragmented images; objects and bright lights appearing to jump around; objects appearing too dark or losing some of their detail; central vision being blurred whilst peripheral vision is still sharp; central object being magnified whilst objects on the periphery are blurred.  

  • Poor depth perception.   

  • Difficulties with throwing and catching.   

  • It may be easier and more pleasurable to focus on a detail rather than the whole object.  

  • Irlen Syndrome (A perceptual processing disorder which changes the way the brain perceives light. Can cause difficulties with reading.) 

Touch / feel

  • Preference for, or only being able to tolerate, particular types of clothing, bedding, blankets and other materials.   

  • Dislike for certain pens or pencils, due to the feel of them or the paper, or their scratchy sound.   

  • Disliking gentle human touch & preferring firm touch.  Or vice versa. 

  • May not like any human touch at all. It may even feel painful or like an electric shock.   

  • Enjoying the sensation of being squeezed.   

  • Preferring a weighted blanket to help sleep or preferring only light bed clothes.   

  • Wanting to touch things, stroking certain materials, feel textures such as tree trunks, grass or sand.   

  • Enjoying handling textured foods, materials such as sand or playing with liquids. Enjoying playing with blue tac, Play Dough, pastry etc.   

  • Being very attached to a particular object, for example a pebble, a toy or a piece of material.  

  • Not wanting to touch certain things such as paper.   

  • Intense dislike of the feeling of wrinkled skin after a bath or swimming.   

  • Constantly stopping in the street to straighten socks or adjust other clothing.    

  • Preferring not to wear clothes.  

  • Difficulty sleeping in unfamiliar bedding.   

  • Being overly sensitive to pain.   

  • Not sensing pain or having an unusually high pain threshold. 

  • Self-harming for the reasons of needing sensory input. Picking or scratching skin. 

  • Smearing bodily fluids.   

  • Chewing on objects, materials or food. 

  • Distress from constrictive clothing such as baby-grows, snowsuits, gloves or socks.   

  • Difficulties with brushing, washing or cutting hair.     

  • Skin problems such as eczema, rashes, urticaria, easily sunburnt ...   

Introspection & temperature control

  • Difficulty knowing when we are hungry or full, thirsty or tired.   

  • Difficulty noticing, recognising and explaining our emotions, for example anxiety.  

  • Not being aware of our temperature or able to adjust our surroundings accordingly.    

  • Difficulty with traditional pain scales used my medical professionals.   

  • Unusual sleep patterns.   

  • Speaking too loudly or too quietly.    

  • Being unable to adjust body temperature easily – slow to warm up or to cool down.   

  • Wearing inappropriate clothing for the climate.  Preferring shorts and t-shirts in winter. Needing extra clothing or feeling the cold more than average.   

 
 

Proprioception, balance & spatial awareness

  • Frequent accidental injury or clumsiness and poor balance. Possibly Developmental Co-ordination Disorder (Dyspraxia).

  • Bumping into things. Frequently dropping things. Not wanting to join in physical education classes or sports.

  • Problems with gross motor skills (walking, running...) or with fine motor skills (tying laces, writing …)   

  • Not having an awareness of where individual body parts are in relation to the rest of the body.   

  • Spinning, swinging or hanging upside down. 

  • Needing to be constantly on the move, fidgeting, kicking legs, running around, dancing, trampolining or jumping up and down.   

  • Enjoying firm pressure or squeeze vests to give proprioceptive feedback.  

  • Preferring to sleep in a very small area, a tent like area, a large space or against a wall.   

  • Car or other motion sickness.   

  • Walking with an unusual gait.   

photo-1474692321929-4d0c27302b7e.webp

Managing our sensory differences is vital. It is the difference between extreme distress, overwhelm, meltdowns and shutdowns - and feeling comfortable, able to concentrate, able to learn and able to perform basic tasks.