February 2, 2017
Sensory Issues – Hyper and Hypo-Sensitivity are Real Issues for #Autistic folks
Sensory issues are a funny thing. They can be our greatest joy, or the source of our greatest pain.
And yet most people just take them for granted – at least, neurotypical folks do. The five main senses – taste, touch, smell, hearing, sight… well, those are just how we interact with life, right? And the additional senses like balance, pain sensitivity, sensing whether or not we need to empty the bladder or bowels, and sensing where your body is in space… well, those should just work. Right?
If you’re on the autism spectrum, you’re probably thinking, “Well… not exactly.” And for people like us, you’d be right. Of all the issues autistic folks face, sensory issues are right up there on the list of disruptors. We can literally live in heaven or hell (or a combination of the two), all because of our sensory issues.
It can all be very… “exciting”. I’m being a little sarcastic, here, because sensory issues are such a massive part of autistic life, I have to have at least some humor about them. On any given day, I myself can be over-sensitive to heat, but not feel it when I slam into a counter while I’m walking around my kitchen. I can be very coordinated, even graceful, when I am moving fast. But if I slow down, I can stumble around like I’ve had too much to drink. Sometimes I cannot tolerate the sound of my partner singing her favorite song, and on other days, even the neighbor’s leaf blower doesn’t bother me.
It all varies, from day to day. And sometimes there’s no knowing — or predicting — how I’ll respond to different sensory input.
Ironically, the mainstream world doesn’t seem fully aware of sensory impacts to autistic folks. And when we show up with a variety of experiences — sometimes changing from day to day, from week to week, as well as over our lifetimes — people sometimes think we’re making it all up.
We’re not, of course. The rest of the world just hasn’t caught up with us. And they don’t realize that our social interaction issues, our communication issues, as well as our “erratic” behavior is directly linked to our sensory issues. When your system is working overtime, sorting out the sights, sounds, smells, and surroundings in a new place, with new people, there’s not a lot of energy left over for interactions and communication.
Personally, I’m no good to anyone, socially speaking, when lights and sounds have been whittling away at my energy levels for a while. My co-workers are fond of going out to lunch at busy, loud restaurants that have rows of big-screen TVs blaring in the background, and when I join them, I’m pretty much shut-down. I’m so busy trying to screen out the unwelcome input, I’m unable to pay much attention to anything they say.
At the end of a busy day at the office, with overhead fluorescent lights and lots of noise and activity around me, I’m too wiped out to interact with other people.
And at the end of a long and full work week, I’m in no mood to socialize. It takes me days to get back to feeling human again. So, Saturdays and Sundays are major down-time for me, when I do my utmost to block and all intrusions into my routine and schedule.
Even if I do get recruited into a social event, there’s no guarantee that I’ll be able to participate fully, because I may be too overwhelmed by the sights and sounds and smells all around me. And going to a new place where I don’t understand the rules of engagement? Yeah, happy interaction is generally not happening.
So, what can a person do about sensory issues?
- Get enough exercise – and give your body some rest afterwards. Stress can make sensory issues worse, so resting up and having a way to work off excess energy can be helpful. After a strenuous workout, your body will need time to rest and rebuild.
- Find a stim toy or tool. Stimtastic has jewelry and toys you can use to stim. Stimming can really help you narrow your focus and participate in what’s happening in front of you. Even without a formal “stim toy”, you can find things like a pen to fidget with, or a rolled up piece of paper to clench in your hand. There are many ways to stim, and a lot of them can be done out of the line of sight of others who don’t understand what you need, or why.
Take time to recover emotionally. Dealing with overstimulation can be draining. Give yourself time to recover and rest. While you may not feel physically tired, you can be mentally or emotionally drained from the experience, and it may take some time to get back to your regular level of functioning.
- Be gentle with yourself. Not everybody has to love fireworks and arcades and busy chain restaurants where you’re surrounded by loud, big-screen TVs. Everybody’s different. Don’t beat yourself up for not being fond of those environments.
- See what works for you, and do that as much as humanly possible. We all have things that work for us, and when you find something that works (for me, it’s holding a crumpled up piece of paper in my left hand inside my jeans pocket), it can be like a precious jewel you find in the wilderness. Hang onto that and use it whenever you can.
- Avoid the things that don’t work for you. You don’t have to please everyone, or be like everyone else. If you’d rather go to a quiet bookstore than a busy bar / pub, tell your friends. Maybe they’d like it, as well.
Everybody’s journey is different, even with the issues we have in common.
Are there any things you do, that work for you? Tell us about it! We’d love to hear more.
Want to read more about Sensory Issues? Check out these great articles written by Toni Boucher:
- The Sensory Integration Toolbox: 15 Life-Changing Tips to Support People on the Spectrum
- Ten Myths About Autism and Sensory Integration