Today is my second post for world autism awareness week. Today I’m going to cover some of the sensory side of autism and how it feels to be on the spectrum.
I have used a cake based analogy to explain autism for a few years.
The basic idea is that the features of autism make a layered cake. Each layer builds on the last.
The base is made of sensory perception. If the sensory environment isn’t right nothing else is possible till the sensory environment is made right.
The middle layer is communication skills and the top layer is social skills. The very top (the cherries) represent relationships.
This post is about the bottom layer. Sensory stuff.
Perceiving and processing sensory input keeps our brains busy. For the majority of people, the filtering is so effective then can choose freely what sensory input they perceive.
For example, most people won’t be distracted by ticking clocks, they can ignore background noise and focus on what they want. It happens without effort or planning. Listening to someone speaking is natural, there’s not perception of the background noise.
I can’t. I perceive everything and have to actively filter stuff out. This takes a huge amount of energy and focus. Many auties have the same thing.
The additional load due too filtering can make some environments completely unsustainable.
To reduce the load I use technology. For my sound perception I use ear defenders and noise cancelling headphones. For my vision I use sunglasses. When the detail of everything is overloading. I often take my glasses off entirely to reduce the levels of input. Effectively. If I can’t see the distracting small details (number plates, signs, the number of stripes on a shirt) I don’t have to filter them.
This filtering effects all my senses. Sound is the most obvious day to day, but it also effects my internal and external senses. Hunger, temperature and pain are extremely inconsistent for me.
If ever someone on the spectrum is having a bad day. First look at the environment. Noise, movement, light, and smells all require filtering.
Be aware of the environment and accept that people on the spectrum don’t have a choice about what we perceive. So we must furnish ourselves with the tools to manage it.
For me, that means I will often refuse to remove my ear defenders. Others find the feeling of an exposed head difficult and need a hood or hat in order to filter that sense.
Demanding that someone on the spectrum removes something they are using to filter the sensory environment. Is exactly akin to demanding someone with no legs to stop using a wheelchair.
Sensory stuff has a fun side. Sensory experimentation and seeking can be a huge source of joy and happyness.
The giant lion toy in the photos alongside this post is Mr Dennis Straction (Mr D. Straction). He’s a very large sensory toy. Covering textures, sounds and motion.
I think he does for me what smoking and alcohol does for others. He is awesome. The sensory input he provides can totally take me out of a situation and help me to relax and regain control.
So I hope that gives some context and explains a bit about the sensory side of autism. If you have any questions or comments. Feel free to leave a comment below or get in touch via email.