It’s true, the sensory thing is real. It’s not just a little thing, it’s a massive thing. It is a thing that if it’s not a thing you probably really struggle to get it. If it’s not a thing for you then of course, naturally it’s going to be difficult to get your mind around the concept.
To think that a noisy environment, a particular smell, can leave one debilitated, shutdown, overwhelmed, is perhaps a difficult idea to understand when those things are just a part of life and do not impact your daily life in a way that makes it difficult to function, to complete the day-to-day tasks required to get through life.
If you know many autistic people you have probably encountered and experience where they have had difficulty with sensory input. It may have been noise, it may have been light, it may have been smell. There are unfathomable number of sensory inputs in the world we inhabit that can be the catalyst for sensory input to negatively impact an autistic person.
Within my family are autistics that struggle with loud volume noises, as young children the noise of a vacuum cleaner, a power saw or a lawn mower for instance would cause such immense pain that the only expression they were able to give was to scream uncontrollably and inconsolably until that sensory input was removed.
In many cases the onlooker to such an even would make an assumption that this was a naughty child, a child having a tantrum because they didn’t get what they wanted to get. Yet nothing could be further from the reality of what is going on.
Sensory overload impacts in a similar way to pain, one must stop it however one can and it leaves one extremely exhausted and in need of rest and recovery afterwards.
Perhaps one of the most difficult things with sensory impacts is it’s impossible tell from where and when it is going to assault you, and additionally it is impossible to tell the level of severity one’s response to it will be.
But, having said that, it really is a thing. Yes, it really is a thing. And not just a small thing, it’s a big thing, a significant thing, an often overlooked thing, an often discounted thing. But, it is a huge thing and it’s about time that it was taken into consideration and sought to be understood with a lot more commitment than has been seen in education and therapeutic circles than I have seen.
What I have seen is discussion of minimization and desensitization. The use of headphones for example to minimise the impact. Alternative is the idea of gradual increased exposure to desensitize the autistic person and somehow make this sensory input no longer an issue.
Whilst there is some merit to minimization in unchangeable environments, the idea of desensitization is sheer ignorance and absolute offence. Would one say to a paraplegic for example oh we will just desensitize you to the idea of never being able to use your legs again, it’s ok, in time you will just get used to it, no need for a wheelchair, or ramps, or handrails you will just get used to and it will be somehow all good.
What we don’t hear very often at all is stories of employers or educational institutions that are willing to, and carry out, real changes, like the removal of echo chamber classrooms, the provision of quiet spaces for students, the removal of all flourescent lighting or the option of not working in ubiquitous team situations in the workplace. No we don’t hear about these things because this sensory thing, just isn’t taken seriously enough.
Because like it or not, believe it or not, accept it or not, this sensory thing, yes, it really is a thing.
Loud noises are not a huge issue for me, but being in a cafe that has lots of different conversations going at once is really difficult, the effort to filter out and focus on the conversation I am involved in is incredibly difficult, and incredibly exhausting. Being in a shopping centre is also a similar situation. The impact builds gradually, in fact, it really sneaks up on me and suddenly I find myself in a flight or fight situation. Most often it is flight, I need to get myself out of that situation, and I need to do it now. What’s more, I need those with me in such situations to understand and accept that it really is a thing, and when I say I need to get out of it now, I really do mean now. The difference of even five minutes may just be the difference between meltdown/ shutdown or not.
The smell of mint has always been incredibly difficult to me. It took me a long time to realise that this was a real sensory issue for me. Someone sitting next to me eating a mint, provokes in me an overwhelming desire to vomit. The smell of someone chewing gum in my vicinity strikes fear into my heart and my anxiety levels are immediately elevated. For years I thought it was just me, that I was somehow weird and wrong and I should just get over it, but, you know what, it just isn’t that simple. The very act of walking into the bathroom after someone has brushed their teeth with a mint based toothpaste is in fact an event of trauma. It invokes my vomit response, assaults my senses in such a way that I am unable to think straight, I am unable to function in any way other than to remove myself from the input of that smell.
It’s a sensory thing. Yes, it really is. Whether or not you believe it, whether or not you understand it, and whether or not you choose to accept it, it’s a real, true and absolutely impacting thing.
Yes, it’s a sensory thing, it really is!
For more about sensory and it’s real life impact, see Tricia’s tandem post: Outlasting the Minty Fresh