The Different Ways Sensory Processing Disorder Affects My Senses
This is how I describe my sensory sensitivities to most people. As an autistic person, my five senses — touch, sight, hearing, taste and smell — are amplified.
This is not speaking for everyone on the spectrum, but it is common to have some kind of sensory sensitivity or sensory processing disorder with autism.
Here are some examples of sensory problems I have had (or still do), and what I believe people should be aware of when it comes to sensory triggers for people with autism.
When I was younger, touch was a big deal for me. I hated being lightly touched. I either needed to be squeezed tightly in a hug or generally not touched at all. I wasn’t a cuddly child, and I hated having my hair brushed. For someone with autism, it can feel similar to an electrical shock, or a bee sting, or a paper cut… anything on that scale that is a sharp and often uncomfortable touch. I also liked falling and landing on the ground. The pressure from falling and landing on the ground like a belly flop was really soothing for me. The rapidness of it and the adrenaline rush felt good for someone who felt like they could explode at any second. Often, I felt all kinds of pent-up tension inside, and often I would not know how to handle this build-up of anger.
My parents had all kinds of tools they used for me when I was younger. I had a treasure chest filled with rice that I would touch, I slept in a hammock for a while, I was in the pool a lot — all kinds of different things. I needed things to touch because every part of my body felt ultra-sensitive.
Today, I’m not as sensitive about touch. I enjoy hugs, I can handle people touching my shoulder when they talk to me, etc. But I am sensitive to it when I am tired. I tell my fiancé that the best thing to do for me when I am upset is to give me a big, tight hug where it seems like for anyone else it would be painful, or just not to touch me. If you were to brush a feather on me when I was tired or upset, I would feel literally like punching a wall; it hurts that badly.
Just because we don’t reciprocate physical touch does not mean we do not love you. I know many parents who feel like they aren’t connected to their child because they don’t enjoy their touch. Even though we might not like the way you show your affection, it doesn’t mean we don’t have any for you. I know some people consider physical touch to be a part of how they express care, but that doesn’t mean it is the only way. Try to understand the ways we show we care that may not be in your way.
Many people with autism can be visual learners. As a friend of mine put it the other day, we might miss the things you see, but you also might miss the things we see. I find that I see a lot of minor details most people might overlook in certain situations. I notice many things. I find myself constantly looking around a room, seeing everyone’s faces, the cracks in the walls, what’s out the window, counting the moles on people, etc. I feel like I can see everything without even trying that hard. People might find it rude when I don’t always make eye contact, but a lot of the time, I have a better time retaining what you are saying when I don’t look you in the eye.
I think sight is my strongest sense. I have a really good eye for color, I notice things most people don’t, I’m really good at puzzles, I always pass those “mind trick” drawings, etc. I think the downside to my strong sight is that I have a really hard time being outside in the sun for long periods of time without sunglasses on… good thing they look fabulous on me.
Sight is one of those things that, if I am tired, if combined with other senses, can be hard to deal with. If I am at a really loud concert with smoke machines and bright lights, it can get super overwhelming. I am also very easily distracted. At times it can be hard to get my attention because I am so busy mentally soaking in everything in a room that I forget about what you might necessarily want. There is also difficulty with spacial relationships. I have a hard time parking my car sometimes because I get anxious about hitting the car next to me, even though I may have “plenty of space.”
I hear everything or I hear nothing. I can hear a conversation clear as day in another room, or you can be trying to get my attention while I’m sitting right next you and I literally can’t hear you. My parents thought I might be deaf before I was diagnosed because I wasn’t responding to my name and I also didn’t really speak till age 4. With any kind of sudden, loud noise, I tend to freak out a little. I only do a little on a normal day, but when I am tired, it becomes a much bigger deal. I feel like I can walk into a room and hear all the details of every conversation. I memorize songs by listening to them once. Being given instructions or notes about things can be ridiculously hard for me. If I look at you funny after you have given me a list of tasks, just know it probably went way over my head and that I either need it repeated or I need to go write it down. I’ve gotten better at advocating for this sort of thing, but it can be hard to remember in the moment.
Surprisingly, I have a really easy time articulating my thoughts or ideas, though some other people on the spectrum may struggle with this. But when reading things out loud for the first time, it’s like hearing the sound of my own voice catches me off guard when I am also trying to process the information I just read. Too many things going on at once. I hate when multiple people try talking to me at once. I literally cannot process everything all of you are trying to tell me at once, and it gives me a great amount of frustration. Unfortunately, sometimes one of the only things to help myself when I am frustrated and tired is to swear; it’s therapeutic for me. The crispness of cuss words literally feel like I am popping bubble wrap — it’s soothing.
A little advice:
- When giving instructions to me, if you can, write it down. The combination of you telling the tasks to us and showing them can help me process it better.
- Try not to have multiple people speaking at me at one time. Most likely, it won’t stick, and it will be frustrating for me.
- Be mindful of loud, sudden noises. I can’t always help feeling overwhelmed by it, and things happen, but if you can, remember it.
- Calling my name from across a room isn’t always the best way to get my attention. In fact, for many of us, that might be one of the first signs in getting our diagnosis.
- If someone can’t articulate a thought or an idea verbally, see if they will write it out. That can help them process their thoughts.
There are some foods in my life I have maybe tried once or twice that I will never eat again. Did it taste bad? Not necessarily. Often someone with autism may have a hard time eating certain foods because of the texture. I grew out of a lot of my texture sensitivities. I was the kid who literally ate nothing but peanut butter and jelly sandwiches the early parts of my life. Up until the age of 19 or 20, I literally didn’t eat vegetables. Now, I’ve found stuff I like that is good for me. It can be really hard to explain why texture is a big deal… it literally feels like eating nails when some things have a weird texture to them. Now, I don’t walk around looking at foods and going “that looks weird, or is bumpy, so I won’t eat it.” (To be honest, some things I haven’t tried because they are kind of strange-looking.) But you never know unless you try. I’ve had to learn that my whole life — not just with food, but with everything!
I believe the best thing a parent can do for a child with autism is to guide them to try new things. Food seems like such a basic idea to do this, but it really can be a big deal. If I hadn’t had my fiancé getting me to eat new things, I wouldn’t have found some of my new favorite foods! We don’t have to like everything, but if you give us options, eventually we might find something we like. Parents, I suggest finding what works and then seeing if you can build off what you find is good. Finding foods your child likes is good, but there are so many possibilities you might not have even thought of.
It’s kind of cool how I can smell a lot of things, but it can get overwhelming. I am really good at differentiating similar smells. Sometimes autistic people with sensory integration disorder might have difficulty identifying smells or discriminating between smells.
I know this was super long, but I hope you got a lot out of it.
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