Sensory issues are often a core feature of autism spectrum conditions. There are two types: hypersensitivity (extreme sensitivity) and hyposensitivity (lacking sensitivity). This post is about hypersensitivity. I have multiple sensory problems, I guess, they wouldn’t be problems if I didn’t encounter the things that trigger them, but life involves sensory input so that would be impossible.
Auditory sensitivity means that sounds almost assault your ears when they are above a certain level, or are of a certain pitch. It quickly gets very stressful, and it can be exacerbated by tiredness, illness or stress. Overwhelming levels of noise can lead to meltdown, and will in many children, adults would normally try to remove themselves from the situation or perhaps invoke “stimming” (self-stimulatory habits officially called stereotypies) to diffuse the stress.
If a noise is too loud for me, afterwards I can get a reaction in my ears that sounds almost like a muted thumping and it is unpleasant. Whilst uncomfortable noise levels are going on, it can feel almost painful to my ears. I can’t bear so many things that others think is mad, such as someone crunching food in the same room as me, someone blowing their nose or sniffing, someone noisily picking at their fingernails etc., although those aren’t necessarily disturbing in volume, it’s just their presence that distresses my ears. My hearing is so sensitive that I can even hear sonic insect repellents that are supposed to be above human range.
Tactile hypersensitivity, known as exteroception is an irritant. Clothing can feel very uncomfortable and annoying, labels feel itchy, waistbands can make you feel panicky even. I feel the tiniest single hair or miniscule insect land or fall on me and I can’t bear even one tendril of hair brushing against my face. I also can’t bear the feeling of a sock getting rucked up under my toes…and I used to think everybody felt the same as me. I just thought it was life’s annoying things. Since knowing which of my traits are autistic I have identified so much that I thought everybody had, and realised they don’t.
Interoception, is an awareness of internal organs. This is a little known one. Many times when I have had health complaints I have felt something that was wrong inside my body and when it was checked out, I was correct. When carrying both my children, I felt them moving incredibly early and the radiographer conducting the scan told me when I mentioned it that “it isn’t possible”. I beg to differ as I felt it! When your body is that sensitive you know what is and isn’t part of your body.
Optical sensitivity, light and bright colours hurt my eyes. I often wear sunglasses even on cloudy days and almost always have the sun visor down no matter how dull the day (yes, Aspies can drive!). Fluorescent colours make my eyeballs literally ache and I really pick up on lightbulb flicker. It’s hard to explain it to someone who doesn’t have it. I also meet all the criteria for scotopic sensitivity http://www.irlen.org.uk/ (also known as Meares Irlen Syndrome – how many syndromes can one person have!) which is where you have night-blindness, are affected by glare from artificial lights and certain coloured backgrounds with text are harder to read, amongst other things.
Smell sensitivity, known as olfactory hypersensitivity is a difficult one. Bad smells can easily make me violently dry heave and I can smell things long before others can and when others can’t at all.
Food textures – I can’t bear stringy food, slimy food, gloopy food, food with little bits in (I can gag extremely easily over textures) and am frequently seen pulling bits and pieces out of my mouth when eating. If I see a tubey vein in a piece of meat, well that’s it for me! Sorry for the descriptive element, but it does help get the picture.
My equilibrioception, which is vestibular, or balance sense, is poor, I have never learned to ride a bike and doubt I could manage it even now. Coupled with my proprioception problems (see next paragraph) it makes for one clumsy person!
My proprioception, which is someone’s sense of body in space, is bad, I am the clumsiest person ever. I constantly walk into door frames etc. burn my arms on the iron and oven, bruise myself (I’m so used to it I barely notice it and wonder where all the bruises come from).
So as you can see, it’s a pretty long list. For an autistic child going through all these sensations, you can understand why they can meltdown pretty quickly when their sense are assaulted by all these things. This is also why people on the spectrum need time out to recover when things have been overstimulating. It can build up as well, you are being overloaded throughout the day without even sometimes realising it, and then you suddenly reach a point that it’s all been too much, until you feel like this:
― Jane Wagner