How My Autistic Brain Processes Sensory Information
I was born to and raised by a military family, moved around a lot in my life and attended 13 different schools. I was diagnosed with ADHD around 4 or 5 years old, learning disorder (dysgraphia and dyslexia) at some point in my childhood, and autism spectrum disorder at 22.
Every now and then I’ll get asked if I can describe some of the ways autism affects me. Often it’s kind of a difficult question for me to answer, not because I believe it’s too personal of a question, but because I’m not sure how to compare myself to a human without autism. Since it’s something I was born with, the way I experience, comprehend and interact with the world is quite different than for someone without autism. This means I can only guess how a person without autism experiences, comprehends and interacts with the world.
How a person with autism experiences the world will vary quite a bit from person to person. Just because this is how I experience life with autism, it does not mean everyone else with autism will experience life in the same way.
When I first typed this out, it was quite massive, so I’ll focus on just the the hypersensitivities I experience.
Take a minute and try to focus on every single sensory input possible, everything you are capable of picking up with your eyes, nose, ears, touch, smell, and taste, and I mean everything. Now imagine your brain is forcing you to be consciously aware of everything, every single moment. But that’s still hardly detailed enough, because there’s so much stimuli the neurotypical person naturally seems to block out.
Consider the clothes touching your skin, and the possible layers not directly touching your skin, but still exerting a slight pressure on your skin from their weight, no matter how light. My brain is always aware of each strand touching my skin, the hundreds of points of contact, even down to the texture of what I’m wearing, like a wool sweater. I’m aware of minor changes in temperature, which is why I’m a huge wuss when it comes to warm weather.
Then think about all the vibrations that surround you. Right now I count about 83-ish different sources of vibrations. Listening to music from my speakers covers a good number (only counting vibration, not what my ears alone are picking up). Then there’s vibrations from vehicles driving by. Vibrations from lower flying airplanes, the washer/dryer combo, dishwasher, heaters kicking on and off, and that’s really just what I can guess, although it doesn’t stop my brain from devoting a portion of my conscious processing ability to identifying the other sources.
For me, the worst feeling and one that can send me from zero to 60 in a millisecond is touching other human beings. Two types of touch get to me — skin on skin, especially dry skin, and a certain range of touch pressure. It’s right on the borderline of extreme discomfort and pure pain. I can handle extremely firm touching, which is why wrestling in high school didn’t bother me too much; every bit of touching was quite firm, and quickly aggressive. Unfortunately hugging is slow enough that in between initiating the hug and approaching the full pressure of the hug, the pressure will hit that perfect spot to cause me to overload, and then it’ll happen a second time when the person is disengaging the hug.
Causal touching on the shoulders and arms is tough. Granted, I fully understand and respect that a person isn’t going to death grip my shoulders/arms and I don’t expect everyone I interact with to know that. But regardless, the pressure most people will use when causal touching will hit that overload zone and there’s very little I can do to stop it.
Sound is the easiest sensory input for me to control with devices like earplugs and headphones, but also the area that causes me the most grief. My brain is always forcing a portion of conscious processing ability in order to track and identify sources of sounds. For example, if I’m in a crowded restaurant, my brain is forcing me to attempt to follow each bit of human speech. Trust me, I have no desire to listen in on the conversations strangers are having, but I hear them anyway. I also hear other sounds humans make, including speaking, gas passing, bones cracking/popping, footsteps, clothes brushing against other surfaces, sneezing, coughing, sniffing, tapping etc.
But it’s not just humans talking my brain is attempting to be aware of and track, it’s every sound my ears are able to pick up. Music playing from the overhead speakers, pouring soda, the cooling units in soda machines/refrigerators/freezers/ACs, the ice machine, grills, fryers, kitchen vents, dishwashers, sinks, dishes being stacked, beeping on timers and cash registers, sounds from people’s cellphones, toilets, and water/gas/electricity running through the walls. I also hear every sound coming from outside that I’m physically capable of hearing (which may vary depending on the overall volume inside) — cars, people talking, planes, car horns, etc.
When it comes to sight, I’m still not sure how to accurately describe it. It’s a situation where my brain is attempting to identify and track everything my eyes are physically capable of picking up — from slight changes in lighting to flickering of fluorescent lights, and everything that moves. Every little detail of everything. It’s as if my brain doesn’t have enough conscious processing power dedicated to just processing sight, and it will bleed into areas of conscious processing power dedicated to other senses. So generally sight won’t cause an overload or shutdown on its own, unlike sound or touching. But if large amount of conscious processing power is already being used to handle other senses, sight will bleed into those.
4. Planning to avoid becoming overloaded.
In order for me to do anything, I need to plan in advance. Once I choose an event/activity to do, I’ll begin planning out what to expect. I’ll generally research the event/activity and I’ll spend hours and sometimes months doing this. I’ll attempt to identify possible risk factors and estimate what I can expect for amounts of stimuli, how I will react if confronted with large amounts of stimuli, what items to bring in order to cope, and every possible escape route if the situation becomes too much. I’ll attempt to plan out every possible human to human interaction and will map out huge dialogue trees/scripts for every possible thing I can think of, for every possible conversation subject and/or emergency I deem as a possibility. Then I’ll organize it in mental depth charts and action trees that should run themselves.
5. How I put it all together.
I spend most of my active thinking on acknowledging everything my brain is taking in and attempting to organize. This is extremely important, and I’ll be devoting the largest amount of my conscious thinking ability to it. But it can be simplified as me shouting at the top of my lungs in my head “Grass is green, man with blue hat, brown dog over there. I smell something that seems to be coming from over there. A person just glanced in my direction. Oh look, a river. There are 56 old pieces of gum in between these two cracks in the sidewalk. Oh a cluster of humans walking this way. There are holes in that person’s shirt.” It’s generally about 65-150ish observations a second, but that also varies depending on the event/activity.
So when I’m out and about, 65 percent of my total ability of conscious thought will be devoted to this internal shouting of keeping up with incoming stimulation. Another 30 percent will be dedicated to playing out pre-planned scripts, and 5 percent will be acting as a bridge between the shouting race and scripting. When I’m interacting with people (especially people I don’t know well) you’re really interacting with a set of pre-planned scripts, while the majority of me is busy keeping up with everything my senses are taking in.
The 65/30/5 ratio changes a lot depending on what I’m doing. A big outdoor event downtown, like fleet week, required 75/20/5. The burnout was so bad, I ended up doing nothing else on those days. Keeping up the shouting race takes a large amount of effort, and if something pops up that I didn’t plan for, or the plan I had made was buried on my depth chart, then I have to devote processing from the shouting race to pulling out the applicable plan and making possible adjustments. Then once I have adjusted my depth chart and action trees, I’ll go back and play catch up on the shouting race. But that takes even more effort, and if it’s gone on too long and I start struggling to keep up, I may begin to shut down as I try to catch up.
I’ve become quite decent at setting up plans on my mental depth chart and action tree, so in most cases when I have to adjust, it won’t take too much of a strain. And then when everything is applied properly, it’ll turn into an amazing situation where I have a level of awareness of my surroundings most people can’t begin to match.
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Getty image by Claudio Ventrella.