Autism and Sensory Problems

Having sensory issues is probably our biggest difficulty with autism.  I did not know myself that I had sensory issues until I was diagnosed as an adult.  So I have decided to write about it for others in a similar position to me.  I suffered with these issues but did not realise that autism caused it all until I researched the topic and went through the diagnosis process.

From basic science there are five senses we have as humans which are sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch.  Each of these senses work by sending a message from the area that has been stimulated to the brain.  The brain then receives this message and decides what should be done about the information it receives.  From the most recent understanding of autism it is these messages in the brain and the brain’s interpretation that is the area where things are not right for someone with autism.

With autistic people some of the smallest or benign sensory input can be greatly misinterpreted by the brain.  Some of the most common examples include:

  • Light from a ceiling or the sun (indirectly) shining into our eyes
  • An unexpected touch such as a brushing of an arm
  • A smell that would be perfectly acceptable for someone without autism
  • The taste of something slightly sour
  • Or the noise of people talking in a group

To those who are not on the spectrum these are everyday occurrences.  It causes them no issues.  But for someone on the autistic spectrum almost all of the senses are affected greatly.  It does vary from person to person and some people who I have spoken to on the spectrum only have a couple of senses that are affected and some have all.  But we all have some.  But when our senses are affected this causes our biggest difficulties.  Our autistic brains see this sensory input that is the weak to most people as being very strong.  So a ceiling light that is probably a weak source of light (like a candle is to us) is actual on a similar level of looking directly at the sun to someone who is not on the spectrum.  Our brains interpret this as extreme bright light.  It physically hurts us, as our brain is sending out pain signals to stop looking at it and it causes other issues such as intense headaches because our brain works incorrectly.

The same is true for all of our affected senses.  It is very difficult, if not impossible, for someone without autism to truly understand how our sensory issues are affected.  Unless you experience it yourself you probably cannot truly believe it is that way, but it is.  Strangely enough, on the other end of the scale, we can experience something that should cause us great pain (not always of course, but sometimes) and brush it aside as being not too bad or bearable.  Which obviously sends out very conflicting messages to the people who are close to use like our loved ones.  For example if it hurts when someone lightly taps us on the arm unexpectedly but later in the week walk full force into a door frame (as I often do) and just see it as being normal and walk away.

When our senses are being bombarded with this information and our brain interpret this as being too much.  So first of all we become very tired.  For example if walking into a supermarket and there are a lot of brightly coloured products for sale.  People without autism just see this as normal, similar to how we see colours when walking in the countryside.  There is nothing there that overstimulates the brain.  But in a supermarket to us our brain is constantly sending out small pain signals telling us that something is wrong.  Whether this is from the noise or from the bright colours.  As our brains are constantly firing these messages it uses a great deal of energy.  This energy loss makes us tired.  In addition as there are so many mixed messages it makes us confused and weary. All of this can cause us to have delayed processing skills (which is our ability to make sense of all the inputs that our brains receive) and makes it virtually impossible to filter our the background noise as our brains try to process all of the information it receives thinking that it is useful to us.

In everyday life outside of the home things are often too much for our senses and brains to take.  If we are not careful this becomes extreme such as sensory overload.  Sometimes it becomes more extreme again which causes, what we term meltdowns, where we cry, get extremely and uncontrollably angry, get extremely depressed and upset and so on.

We need to do what we can to prevent this overload from happening.  I am sure there are many techniques that you use on a daily basis but I will list as many as I can think of that I use in a hope that there are one or two that you may not of thought of:

  • Prevent light getting into our eyes: close curtain indoors, having ceiling light shades called uplighters so the bulb cannot be seen directly, ensure weaker bulbs are used in all light sources, use lamps most of the time and ceiling lights only occasionally, wear a cap or sunglasses outdoors as much as socially acceptable which is in any brightish day, try to have a rest from using things such as TVs, computers, tablets, games consoles (basically everything that gives out light), look out for light reflections such as the sun reflecting off a glass table and cover it up.
  • Touch is very difficult to avoid as it is often unexpected and the person who does this often means no harm.  If it is a common occurrence letting that person know that it is uncomfortable is a good idea.  On the other hand I always try my best with things like handshakes.  As even though they are uncomfortable for me the other person would be deeply offended if you pulled your hand away.
  • I believe my sensitive skin is due to autism (touch issue) and I do have measures in place to help this such as using very sensitive wash powders and soaps, wearing clothing such as cotton that has smooth fibres and avoiding fabrics such as wool and linen and wearing high factor sun cream.
  • Taste is to avoid the foods which cause you discomfort but if someone else is providing the food it can be hard for them to understand or accept why you are a fussy eater.  For me it is anything tangy or too sweet so I avoid this food altogether.
  • Sound is also very difficult to avoid but things such as wearing headphones in public (even with them turned off) helps a great deal, moving away from a crowd or party and going outside or somewhere quiet like a bathroom to have a rest is perfectly acceptable (just say you feel stuffy or light headed and need some fresh air if you’re questioned), If it is in a shop just tell the person who you are with that you will wait outside (I get sensory overload in shops on many occasions).

Hope all of this helps and please feel free to add a comment or message me if you have any more suggestions.  I would love to add more to this list.

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