Friday, September 14, 2018

What Is Light Sensitivity Like for One Autistic?

10mm Lightning
Photo © Jasper Nance | Flickr / Creative Commons
[image: Photo of lightning exploding in a purple night sky above silhouetted conifer trees.]
M. Kelter
theinvisiblestrings.com

I've had a life-long aversion to lights. I wanted to share what this means in terms of the subjective experience, and how this sensitivity generally seems to operate. The concept of a sensory aversion is probably self-explanatory, but it can include more subtle effects that may not be as apparent. I've noticed two primary factors that can cause my eyes to feel pain (no surprises here): brightness levels, and sudden changes in lighting.

What are the types of "pain" involved, specifically? This can vary. Certainly an intensely bright light can cause a sharp pain, but that's probably true for many people. Let's define "intensely bright" as something akin to a camera flash. That can cause a sharp, stabbing pain, and that pain can persist for minutes or hours. It's worse in the moment of the flash, and slowly fades.

Sharp pain isn't the most common eye discomfort I experience, though. The kinds of lights that I come across most frequently—lighting in a room, for example, or overhead lights in public spaces like a grocery store—tend to create a dull, persistent ache. The pain is like a warm burn that hurts in a lasting, nagging way. The pain isn't as intense, but it is draining. That seems to be the biggest negative impact of my light sensitivity, even more than pain: the more my eyes experience a lasting ache, the more my energy level and mood plummets.

In settings where I'm unable to control the lighting, I'm basically on a timer. At some point, I'm no longer going to be able to think clearly, or have the energy left to complete tasks and function. Almost every action I might take in the course of a normal day involves mentally calculating what the lighting will be like, and how long I will be able to tolerate it. Trips to the store, social events, driving during the day and so on: any activity requires forethought regarding lights and the inevitable energy/mood crash. Again, the pain is uncomfortable, but it's the impact on my energy level that creates the biggest hurdle to daily functioning.

The other factor at play with this sensitivity is sudden changes in lighting. Even in locations where the lighting is not too bright, sudden changes in lighting will create pain and a few minutes of blurred vision. This can happen when lights are suddenly turned off, or on or when I'm walking between rooms that have different levels of brightness.

If one room has comfortable lighting and I walk into another room that also has comfortable, but different, lighting, the change alone is enough to trigger pain. It's more in the category of "dull ache," but it's an unwelcome pain and usually results in at least a few minutes of impaired vision. This also takes a chunk out of my already-in-short-supply energy level.

Also, the visual disorientation can often lead to physical mishaps. It basically looks like clumsiness, but it's more specifically about the change in brightness level and blurred vision. Tripping over unseen objects, knocking over lamps, stumbling into walls—I have a long standing habit of exiting a dark theater into the brighter lobby and plowing directly into a crowd of people: this is all a reliably embarrassing byproduct of the issue with abrupt lighting changes. (For better or worse, I've learned to pretend-laugh and feign nonchalance when these things happen, since people rarely understand what's really happening and think it's funny.)

At any given time, I have to pause and give serious consideration as to whether or not turning a light on or off, or walking to a different room, will be worth the discomfort. I think for most people, this can seem like a minor thing, but in the course of a day, even minimal differences with lights can add up to a substantial impact.

One side note: in addition to pain, lighting discomfort is usually accompanied by a visual effect, a imprint of the light that can hover in my vision for several minutes, sometimes hours. Visible bulbs for example, or rays of light from windows or other sources, can imprint a visual "memory" of that light in my vision, and it can take some time for that imprint to fade. I'm sure there is a more scientific way to describe this, but subjectively, it's like a bright little ghost that stings my eyes for as long as the impression lasts. It's not uncommon to go to bed each night, close my eyes, and spend 20 to 30 minutes waiting for the day's accumulation of light imprints to fade. Lights can both make me tired, and make it hard to sleep.

What helps manage sensory pain like this? Honestly, not a lot, but there are some measures that provide a degree of comfort. Pretty much all of them are what you would expect.

Wearing sun glasses doesn't eliminate the pain, but it does function as a kind of dimmer. It turns the discomfort down a notch or two, which can make a meaningful difference when it comes to energy levels and mood. I wear prescription transition lenses that darken in response to sun light. That helps. A little. (I wish I had less obvious things to say here.)

This second strategy is not recommended, because it involves a major shift in life style—but I personally decided to work overnight jobs as much as possible. For the first 15 years of my adult life, I exclusively worked graveyard shifts that allowed me to sleep during the day and be more active during darker, more comfortable hours. Again, this is not recommended and is not always an option, but I just decided that it was necessary in my case. The change was beneficial in terms of light issues, but it didn't do great things for my social life. There were other downsides; sensory aversions involve a lot of lifestyle choices and cost/benefit analyses.

There are more shades of discomfort and pain-triggers than I can go into here, as this is just a brief overview of light sensitivity, from a subjective angle. It goes without saying: other people with this issue may very well experience it in a different way. I can only speak for myself and hope that sharing this information is in some way useful to those wanting to know more about the day-to-day impact of sensory issues.