Monday, October 28, 2019

What Is Sensory Processing Like For Autistic People?

Sensory Overload
Photo: Sensory Overload by Jamie Grant | Flickr / Creative Commons
[image: High color contrast photo of a light burst, seen from through a
car windshield from the perspective of a rear seat.]

Reid Caplan

Have you ever had a conversation like this:
Autistic person: "I need to leave because the lights here are too bright." 
Non-autistic person: "But it's not bright in here at all!"
Many autistic people have had this conversation, or one like it. We might notice things like sound or light in a different way than others. That's because most autistic people have different sensory processing than non-autistic people.

Sensory processing is how your brain thinks about and reacts to your senses. When we think about our senses, we usually think about the five main senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. But there are other senses, too, like hunger, thirst, temperature, and pain.

Everyone processes their senses in different ways. But autistic people are more likely to have big differences in our sensory processing. Many autistic people feel certain senses too strongly. Feeling like lights are too bright, like we talked about earlier, is one thing a lot of autistic people experience.

We may also be sensitive to loud noises, or how our clothing feels on our body. We may not be able to eat some foods that taste too strong, or have certain textures. We might not be able to stay in a room that is too hot.

Autistic people might also feel certain senses more weakly than other people. For instance, we might not realize that we are hungry or thirsty. We may not feel pain as strongly as other people do. This can also mean that we might love really spicy foods or strong smells that other people can’t handle, because otherwise we cannot taste those foods or smell those smells.

Our sensory processing can also change over time. We might feel a certain sense really strongly one day, and not notice it the next. We might love how a shirt feels now, then not be able to deal with the texture of the fabric later.

Sometimes, our senses overwhelm us. This is called sensory overload. It may make us so upset that we have a meltdown. Our sensory differences can be a good thing. We might get comfort out of a certain smell or taste. Stimming—like rocking, flapping, or playing with a fidget toy—can help us control our senses and feel happy. We might notice things that other people miss.

Sensory processing differences are a big part of being autistic. But non-autistic people don’t talk about sensory processing very much when they talk about autism. Non-autistic people usually focus more on how we behave than on what we’re feeling. They might care more about making us behave differently, instead of trying to understand why we act the way that we do.

A lot of autism therapies try and make autistic people look and act “normal.” These therapies don’t make our sensory differences go away. But they make us feel like we need to hide them. They tell us that the way we process our senses isn’t “normal.” They tell us that when we behave differently because of our sensory processing, that we need to act “normal” instead.

Think about the example of an autistic person who feels like a light is too bright. A non-autistic person might think the light isn’t bright. They don’t have the same sensory processing experience as the autistic person. So they try and say that what the autistic person is feeling isn’t true. But telling the autistic person “the light isn’t bright!” doesn’t help them. It won’t make the light feel less bright. It just makes the autistic person feel like they need to stop talking about it.

An example of someone being told their perception about lights is incorrect.
[image: Captain Picard from Star Trek: The Next Generation yelling what is
written in white all-caps text: "There are... four lights!!!"]
When someone tells us that our sensory processing isn’t “normal,” it shows us that they care more about their own experience than the fact that something is hurting us. And when someone only focuses on their own experience, they are less likely to help us when we have trouble with sensory processing. Instead of trying to make us “normal,” people should accept that we are autistic. They shouldn’t try to change who we are, or how we process our senses.

It’s also important to think about this when we have meltdowns. We can’t control when we experience sensory overload. It does not help to blame or punish us when we get overwhelmed. Giving us space and showing you care about our feelings is the best way to help.

Just because we can’t change how we process our senses, doesn’t mean people can’t help us when we have trouble. There are lots of ways people can help us when we have problems with sensory processing. If it’s too bright, you can turn off the lights. You can take us somewhere darker to take a break. You could give us sunglasses. Just asking how you can help is a big deal!

Autistic people get help with our sensory processing differences every day. We might get help at school or work to be able to do our best job. Our family and friends might help us make our home more comfortable for our senses. We can learn ways to help ourselves, too. We might start carrying sunglasses with us if lights are hard for us. Then, we can put them on whenever it gets too bright.

Autistic people process our senses differently, and that’s okay! Autism makes us who we are, and sensory processing is an important part of being autistic. People should try and understand autism and how it makes us different, instead of trying to change us.