Autistic Acceptance Month Day 10: Sensory Life

If there is an internal logic to how my brain decides what sensations are pleasant or unpleasant and to what degree at any given moment, I’ve yet to crack that pattern. 

Well, there are some patterns that are consistent enough for me to make generalizations:

* A lot of different noises at one time (namely voices, but voices + machines or machines + other machines with different sounds / the same machine that has both high-pitch and low-pitch tones [like vacuum cleaners]) will make my ears hurt and my brain scramble.

* A food either needs to be smooth, crunchy, or close to exactly in the middle: mostly smooth with a few chunks/pieces (like most “crunchy” peanut butter or tapioca pudding) does not sit well with tongue or stomach.

* Cold on skin makes skin feel like it’s being torn off (such as cold rain, cold air being blown on me, or even really cold air in general); however, skin entirely immersed in liquid cold (i.e. swimming pools or oceans) will become tolerable after a few seconds.

* Warm feels pleasant. Hot feels pleasant. What I find “comfortably warm” is what most others consider “way too hot” or even “burning”. That said, I do tend to find actually-at-risk-of-causing-injury-hot uncomfortable enough to not actually cause injury to myself. Most of the time.

* Heavy feels good when I’m under heavy. Unless it’s pressing on my joints in certain positions or restricting my breathing.

* Unless I’m having a shutdown-induced semi-cataonic episode or am actively trying to fall asleep, at least some part of my body needs to be in motion (and even then I may toss. stretch, or change positions while trying to go to sleep). Typing or scrolling through my phone is most of the time enough to satisfy this requirement, though I may also rock, crack/pull my fingers, purse my lips, vocalize, or get up and run about a bit. Stim toys also help.

* Coarse/rough textures feel good on fingertips and generally less so on clothing.

* Mascara is a definite sensory nope. Foundation and face-paint are sometimes tolerable but generally not preferred. Lipstick/chapstick is fine for a while but will eventually be wiped off. Outside of chapstick and, rarely, lipgloss, I haven’t worn actual makeup since my tenth-grade homecoming. Which was some seven years ago.

* Rapid motion of a large amount of area in video games makes my head hurt and my stomach turn (this is why I don’t like most multiplayer online games like Overwatch or Fortnite or Call of Duty). To the point where I’ll often look at another tab /look at my phone when I’m moderating my fiance’s streams. However, rapid motion that is consistent, like trees passing when I’m riding in a car or circling around a fairground when I’m in a fair ride, actually makes the eyes happy. I think that the semi-realism of video games has something to do with it, too; I don’t know if I’d find video-game-motion-hecticness as sensory overwhelming if there were hyperrealistic.

* Consciously thinking about sensory issues makes me hyper-sensitive (my hair touching my face is almost intolerable — I am scratching my face (lightly) and pushing my hair out of my face constantly while writing this post– and my clothes are starting to be irritating even though I don’t usually find what I’m wearing [a t-shirt and gym shorts] uncomfortable).

Generalizations, I repeat.

There are some moments that I can go into a crowded restaurant without earplugs and be okay; there are some moments that I can go into a fairly unpopulated restaurant with earplugs and still be worn out enough to have to take a nap after. There are some moments when hearing the sink running in another room will make me irritable and where the sound of metal/glass being clanked will make me jump and my skin scrawl, and there are some moments when yelling won’t capture my attention.

There are some moments where I can wear short-sleeve shirts and shorts in cold weather and be fine, and there are some moments where I can wear pants and a jacket inside and still find it cold enough for that cold to be frazzling. There are some moments where hair touching my face at all feels like ants crawling on my face (this is especially true if my hair is long enough to reach my neck. Which is a large part of the reason that I keep my hair short enough for it not to reach my neck), and there are moments where I can have almost all of my hair in my face and not be bothered.

There are some moments where the feeling of stomach acid/movement in my stomach compels me to snack constantly, and there are some moments where the fullness in my stomach compels me to eat as little as I can get away with (living with and being frequently around other people means that I can very seldom ever get away with not eating at all in a day. Especially around my fiance, who seems to think I “starve myself” sometimes. No comment).

There are some moments where I can have my phone/computer screen on the lowest possible brightness and my eyes will still burn, and there are some moments where I can have it on medium or even maximum brightness and be fine.

There are some moments where I need to move several parts of my body at once or move constantly, to the point where, say, it’ll take me an hour longer to finish a blog post than I intended because I keep getting up and bolting around (I think this may be related to joint hypermobility — if my joints feel weird, they gotta be moved), and there are some moments where I can be almost completely still and, in fact, movement will take conscious effort.

There are some moments where lotion makes my skin feel uncomfortably plastic, and there are some moments where I’m almost tempted to put on makeup, just to see if I can and what would happen (Snapchat’s makeup filters seem to suggest that I’d look pretty with makeup. But then Snapchat’s filters make everything look pretty).

What I can tolerate and how often seems to hinge on a variety of factors (though I haven’t figured out the exact science of it just yet):

*How much sensory and/or emotional overwhelm I put myself through the day before.
*How much emotional overwhelmed / anxious I’m in at a given moment.
*How focused I am on a task and how difficult that task is (this can go either way — I can either be so immersed in that task that almost nothing penetrates my sensory barrier, or I can find every little sensory disturbance intolerably distracting).
*How I slept the night before and if any part of my body hurts when I wake up (sometimes, I’ll sleep in a position that makes my back or neck hurt when waking up).
*How tired I am at a given moment (conversely, sensory overwhelm will make me tired, which makes me even more overwhelmed, which makes me even more tired…).
*How hungry I feel, which isn’t always related to the amount of food I’ve eaten that day or the last time I ate that food (no matter how recently I’ve eaten, if that hunger feel is there, everything, be it sensory or emotional, will make me that much more overwhelmed).
*If I’m able to stim/fidget in a given moment.

Here might be a good point to explain why stimming and sensory go hand in hand:

Stim is a sensory, often a tactile one. Rocking feels pleasant. Cracking/pulling/playing with my fingers feels pleasant. Playing with a fidget cube or snake twist necklace feels pleasant. Pressing my lips together feels pleasant. Tapping/hitting myself gently (this is a different type of hitting myself than is meltdown-self-injury) feels pleasant. Because my brain only consciously processes so much sensory at any given time, the pleasant of stimming draws my conscious attention away from the unpleasant of noises/skin-hurt.

This is also why I and a lot of other autistic people often listen to music when doing things around the house or in public (I don’t too often listen to music in public unless I’m walking for leisure by myself because my ability to process spoken information is iffy enough without music. But some autistic people need to listen to music in public to find public tolerable). If I’m doing dishes, I’m probably listening to music while doing it to distract from clank-touch. Sometimes, music + noise = even more noise, but, a lot of the time, music minuses noise to where we’re just focused on music.

It’s also important to note that while sensory patterns change slightly from day to day or even moment to moment, people on the spectrum can also experience large shifts in sensory patterns over years (maybe some by the day, too).

For example, noise almost never bothered me as a child unless it was sudden, unexpected, loud noise (which bothers almost everyone). In fact, I was hyposensitive to sound — I didn’t notice a lot of sounds in the environment and generally only heard what I was consciously paying attention to. I can’t remember exactly when it was that my sensitivity to noise started to increase, but I suspect that it was an inverse relationship to my daydreaming. I always have been a constant daydreamer, but I was more heavily immersed in it as a child and was less able to divide my attention between that and the “real-world” when I was younger. Thus, I literally wasn’t paying enough attention to the external environment for sound to bother me. As I’ve gotten older, the slider between how much I’m in “my own world” and how much I’m in the “real world” at any given point has shifted more towards the latter — I still daydream, but the immersion generally isn’t as intense unless I’m literally not doing anything else at the moment (and being an adult means that I more often have things to be doing). So my brain has more attention to devote to the external environment. Which means it notices that, hey, noise is actually pretty unpleasant.

Conversely, I’ve gotten less sensitive to touch as I’ve gotten older. I used to cry when my hair was brushed (but then my hair was longer when I was younger and thus had more room for tangles), I’d be flustered if my clothing wasn’t positioned just right on my body (this was especially true of socks), and there were a lot of foods that I didn’t eat because the texture was unpleasant (like rice and raisins and onions and tomatoes). Now, clothes rarely bother me (though I don’t wear wool [though in Louisiana, few people do because hot] or sequins too often), I can eat the vast majority of foods (I actually love raisins now), and hair brushing goes without incident.

I don’t recall ever having much of an issue with visual sensitivity. I used to hold my face very close to screens, but that turned out to be because of astigmatism — I wear glasses now, so my vision is better and, thus, I don’t have to be as close to screens to see them. I played video games as a child — never multiplayer online games (not that those were as common when I was young, nor would my parents have let me play “violent” games), but sports games like Tony Hawk: Underground or SSX Tricky.

I’ve always had “visual snow” (seeing static-like textures over my field of vision) and lingering after-images when I close my eyes or when I look at something for a while and then look away, but, both then and now, I rarely actually notice it, and, when I do, it generally doesn’t bother me (the only problem it gives me is that it can make it harder to see small details with low contrast — like the light-grey word count of this blog post against the white background that is in size-8 font. Though the fact that I have my zoom at 75% doesn’t help with that — though it does make it easier to read over my writing and to see larger amounts of social media /article text at a time). I’ve been told that some other autistic people experience this, though I’ve also been told that there are plenty of autistic people who don’t and there are plenty of people who experience this who aren’t autistic.

While it’s not entirely known why large-scale sensory profile changes happen, it has been tied to both Burnout (ignoring one’s autistic needs and/or pushing one past one’s sensory, social, and mental boundaries for too long) and to puberty — puberty does strange things to everyone and even stranger things to autistic people.

All this said, though, I seem to be much less impacted by my sensory life than are many autistic people. I generally don’t linger around long at crowded restaurants or parties/gatherings, I seldom go to music concerts, and I don’t wear makeup, but I’m able to be about in public and do just everything that I need to do (the things that I do have trouble with are generally due to either anxiety, executive dysfunction, or auditory processing difficulties rather than sensory over/underwhelm). There are some autistic people who find it difficult to run errands like shopping due to sensory issues, who can only tolerate a limited range of food or clothing textures, who can’t tolerate household chores due to the noise or smells, who seldom use technology because of visual overwhelm, who become nauseous if they smell perfume or cologne, who need to stim constantly and conspicuously in public to tolerate public (most of my public stims are less noticeable, I think. At least no one has ever mentioned my public stimming to me), and all of this does have a greater impact on their lives. In the cases where sensory issues present functional challenges, Occupational Therapy (therapy that acclimates people to sensory stimuli) can be helpful.

In any case, the sensory needs of autistic people need to be accepted as real and accommodated for. Sensory pain is as real as any other type of pain. Sensory discomfort or sensory comfort can be the difference between being able to do a task and not being able to do a task, between having a meltdown and fighting the meltdown off, between socializing well and being irritable around people.

Thus, let autistic people meet those needs. Let them listen to music or wear earplugs if they need to. Let them wear sunglasses inside or twirl their fingers in front of their face if they need to. Let them flap, spin, jump, or do whatever if they need to. Let them have short or long hair if they need to, go without makeup if they need to, wear certain types of clothing if they need to, wear weighted vests or have weighted blankets/lap pads.

The need to be comfortable is as real a need as the need to be fed, hydrated, and rested. Needs well-met leads to happier, more capable people.




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