Autism and Sensory Processing
Have a little look at this short video to start: https://vimeo.com/52193530
For many autistic people, the world is amplified, making them acutely sensitive to sounds, light, taste, texture, touch, colour, detail, movement, smell, their sense of self. Other autistic people are very under-sensitive to certain senses, making them crave them more.
I am very sensitive to sounds, lights and detail. I am sometimes sensitive to touch in times of stress. I am under-sensitive to the senses within my body: tiredness, thirst, hunger, pain, illness etc. I am soothed by smells, essential oils, scented body lotions, perfumes, flowers. I’ve been taught to seek out these senses, when things get unmanageable, and it’s important for everyone to create a soothing system to balance the drive and threat in their lives.
In my life I have been a successful dancer and gymnast, however getting my brain to tell my feet to step slowly onto a moving escalator is often impossible. Busy environments, where there are many people moving around in different directions, are too disorientating to visually process.
Anyone can reach the point of sensory overload during anxiety. But for many autistic people the world is this intense all of the time. When it gets bad, it feels like the sensory wires in my brain are unplugging themselves, then plugging in to the wrong places. Noise is burning, blurred vision, pain, and everything becomes as loud as the loudest thing. Lights speed my heart up and make me too hot and sick. Detail feels like it’s calling or nagging me to pay attention to it. My clothes feel like needles in my skin and clashing smells make my eyes stream. These things confuse, or cancel out, my ability to sense the physical feelings in my body.
Sensory overload happens when you can no longer manage your environment. It really is an awful and frightening thing to go through. In some children and adults, the fear is loud, and it looks like anger, defiance or misbehaviour, which means the autistic person ends up being punished.
They may not be able to communicate their problem and ask for help because these are social skills, they are frightened, the people around them can’t empathise.
Help is unpredictable.
The only way to know how to help an autistic person through this, is to learn their individual sensory triggers and the things that soothe them. Autistic people are always frightened. There’s always that feeling that, somehow, you were born on the wrong planet, and if the people around you do not understand the way you experience the world, it can make you feel very bad about yourself. You withdraw and you shutdown.
Perhaps Matilda can explain this better than me, in her song ‘Quiet,’ written by Tim Minchin, who has a son with Autism.