Sensory Issues

Having sensory issues is probably our biggest difficulty with autism/asperger’s syndrome. As I got a late diagnosis of high functioning autism, as an adult, I had suffered with sensory problems my whole life but didn’t know it was because I was autistic until a couple of years ago.

We have five senses 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.  In someone with autism/asperger’s the brain decodes this message in the wrong way. So we are either hyper-sensitive (feel things too much) or hypo-sensitive (don’t feel things enough).

For people like us with autism/asperger’s, some sensory inputs that seem harmless for most people, become a major source of pain or discomfort for someone with autism.  Some of the most common examples of hyper sensitivity include:

  • Light from a ceiling, torch or the sun (directly or indirectly) shining into our eyes are far too bright.
  • An unexpected touch such as a brushing of an arm or certain clothing materials such as wool or acrylic cause great discomfort and sometimes pain.
  • Smells such as a perfume, aftershave or deodorant becoming incredibly overpowering.
  • Anything tasting slightly sour, sweet, bitter or spicy cannot be eaten so an autistic person with this difficulty will only eat plain foods.
  • The noise of people talking in a group and around the general area meaning it is incredibly difficult to focus on one person talking.

Examples of hypo sensitivity include:

  • Having difficulty with things like throwing and catching balls due to sight issues.
  • Not being able to smell things
  • Not feeling pain very well which can cause a great deal of harm if unsupervised.
  • Difficulty in hearing conversations and enjoying loud sounds like banging.
  • Eating inedible things such as soil and stones.

Some autistic people have all five of their senses affected whilst other may have one or two. There is such a large variation. I certainly have hyper sensitivity to sight, touch and hearing the most and some, but a smaller amount of, sensitivity to taste and smell.

For someone like me who is hyper sensitive the smallest amount of sensory input can cause something called sensory overload (which is when our brains receive too much information to handle). For example if a ceiling light is turned on in my house I have to cover my eyes and not let the light directly come into my eyes otherwise I will definitely have a headache that lasts for a few days. It physically hurts me, as my brain is sending out pain signals to stop looking at it; but to someone else, such as my wife, it is about the same as looking at a candle and causes no ill affects.

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 other people experience things differently to you.

When our senses are being bombarded with this information and our brain interpret this as being too much which causes sensory overload which makes us incredibly tired.  For example when I go into a supermarket and there are a lot of brightly coloured products for sale, lots of potential people that could brush against me and too much noise from tannoy systems people talking and background music.  All this information is constantly firing messages to my brain but my brain cannot keep up with it all which causes confusion and takes up a great deal of energy. Sometimes it is so unbearable that I have to leave the supermarket immediately
other times I can just about put up with it long enough to quickly get what I need and leave as soon as possible but having the consequence of feeling very tired for many hours afterwards.

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 can cause meltdowns, where we cry, get extremely and uncontrollably angry, get extremely depressed and upset.

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. In winter time wearing gloves helps a great deal but gloves can often feel uncomfortable.
  • 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. Many people with autism have a special diet of bland food with a smooth texture.
  • 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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