This is a brief guest blog at SYA? written for a session on sensory sensitivity and experiences in autistic people. Krysia has her own blog on her experiences of researching spirituality as an autistic PhD researcher.
Since humanity has known that autistic people exist, sensory differences have been reported (Robertson & Baron-Cohen, 2017) – which shows this is not something shiny and new particularly. However it has not been something that has been taken seriously or focussed on a great deal by non-autistic people who proclaim to be ‘autism experts’. It’s not always explained when you’re told ‘you’re autistic’ either, or if you are (self-)diagnosed later in life.
Yet this is core to our experience of being autistic: ASAN has it as their first descriptive point when introducing readers of their website to autism. Fellow autistic activist Neurodivergent Rebel described her sensory processing differences as a part of the ‘filter’ she views the world through in 2017. Let’s have a look on what is actually meant by ‘sensory processing differences’. Following on afterwards are some tips and products that come recommended to help look after yourself when experiencing sensory sensitivity and overload.
Sensory processing differences
A ‘sensory experience’ is input from the world via our main senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell.
‘Sensory processing differences’ are when your body is either much more, or much less, sensitive to sensory experiences than the average, non-autistic person or person who does not experience any sort of sensory processing differences (e.g. chronic pain).
The terms hyper- and hyposensitive might be used sometimes. Hypersensitive refers to ‘more sensitive’ and hyposensitive refers to ‘less sensitive’. Some autistic people do use these terms, but others don’t.
‘Sensory sensitivity’ is often used in reference to hypersensitivity. It is important to remember that that not all of the autistic ‘sensory experience’ will be heightened, or more sensitive.
Neurodivergent Rebel explains sensory processing differences below in a short video →
We are all a bit like mixing boards – as shown below – with autistic people being tuned very high or very low in some areas. I find this image quite useful to use when considering my own senses.
Stimming is a way we can regulate sensory experiences and our bodies. There is no one set way to stim. Many of us might not know what our stims our, or feel we cannot regulate our input due to others judging us, or having not known what is going on.
Examples and recommendations:
Below are a few examples of sensory differences – including a few examples from me – and where appropriate, some recommendations (e.g. ear defenders). These are only a few examples of many that might exist – the list is not exhaustive! We’d love to know what you use…
Words moving around on white paper and light being too bright from screens are two things I frequently contend with. I have also heard of LED lights and strip lighting being difficult for autistic people, causing headaches, disorientation and meltdowns. Rooms painted in a very bright white or very bright colours, particularly neon or fluorescent colours, and flashing lights, for example Christmas tree lights can be problematic too. Others might seek bright colours for the enjoyment they bring. On the flip side, I can spot detail really quickly, generally see things in the street before others and I have been known to find mistakes and typos in textbooks and university material!
Have you considered tinted lenses? You can search asos, boohoo, amazon for a variety of different ‘coloured sunglasses’ (especially as they have been ‘in’ last summer). These are usually much more reasonable than proper colorimetry lenses, which optometrists would normally test for. You can find a variety of colours online. Sunglasses can do the trick well too. Claroview software and/or f.lux on screens as screen tints on devices can be very helpful. F.lux is free and can be downloaded here.
Not being able to separate noises apart is an actual thing, or at least for me it is. It feels like the white noise you hear when you are trying to tune a radio, or in days of analogue television when the signal wasn’t so good and you could not hear the programme. My volume gauge is also permanently turned up: one example is I can hear people talking down two flights of stairs and going to the university cafe on a day can be interesting.
These are just a few examples from my personal experience, but I seem not to be alone. Other hearing differences can include certain frequencies or volumes of noises being acutely painful. However autistic people have a good ear for pitch (some even perfect pitch).
Below are two personal recommendations for ear defenders that I have found to be invaluable:
- Isolate earplugs. These are really good if you prefer a discreet and in-ear ear plug, although a medium price point.
- Amazon ‘s over the head ear defenders. These have a much more reasonable price point and are very solid.
Taste and smell
I have placed these two together, since so much of how we experience taste and smell is linked in terms of food. I have always been known to eat quite plainly. However I’ve also known autistics who want the thrill of the spiciest chicken in Nandos (only place I can think of that does spicy food). I guess the latter would be someone who enjoys the kick of the tastes in their mouth and the sensory experience. Finding smells you enjoy can help you when you are faced with any overloading ones, or when you want the sensory experience of one you enjoy.
There is this myth that many autistic people are fussy eaters. Whilst it is hard to judge what is actually meant by the term ‘fussy eater’, what I can tell you is many autistic people can find the textures of some or certain foods distressing and/or painful, and I know I am not alone in saying this. It is not just what we eat that we can experience sensory difference from: the fabric of the clothes we wear (including labels – the bane of my life!), bedding or other things like carpet and people touching us (either getting to close or us wanting the input from human touch).
Finding fabrics you find ‘neutral’ (do not cause distress or pain) or you like is key. Cotton has always been really good for me, as has jersey. Many shops now do ‘basics’ ranges and I find most things in those sort of ranges to be good. It’s completely okay to buy a couple of copies of something you really get on with, in fact I would recommend it. It is vital to be comfortable in what you wear – we’re so anxious anyway! It is also completely okay to let people know if you like human touch or not. I know the actual communicating it can be not the simplest at times (!), but this is a way of respecting your wishes and consent.
It’s important for us to say at SYA?, we do not see sensory differences as something inherently ‘wrong’ or ‘faulty’ in a person. We these differences in experiencing the world around us as part of natural diversity and know the strengths these differences can bring. We know, however, how disabling being overloaded is, and the stigma that stimming faces.
Robertson, C. E., & Baron-Cohen, S. (2017). Sensory perception in autism. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 18(11), 671.