- Sarah Nannery
A Sensory Landscape
Updated: Oct 25, 2019
One of the most commonly cited differences associated with ASD/Autism Spectrum Disorder is “sensory issues.”
But what are “sensory issues?”
Understood.org, a conglomeration of nonprofit organizations working to support parents of children with learning and attention differences, explains "sensory issues" in a very down-to-earth way. Understood writes:
"In some people, the brain has trouble organizing and responding to information from the senses. Certain sounds, sights, smells, textures, and tastes can create a feeling of 'sensory overload.' Bright or flickering lights, loud noises, certain textures of food, and scratchy clothing are just some of the triggers that can make people feel overwhelmed and upset.
There are two types of sensory processing challenges, and many people experience a mix of the two. One is over-sensitivity (hypersensitivity). This leads to sensory avoiding—people avoid sensory input because it’s too overwhelming. The other is under-sensitivity (hyposensitivity). This causes people to be sensory seeking—they look for more sensory stimulation."
It is important to note that "sensory issues" can and do affect many people with ASD, but the two do not necessarily go hand-in-hand: someone can have ASD and no sensory issues, and there are plenty of people who have sensory issues but don't have ASD.
For me, I am and always have been overly sensitive to auditory input - loud sounds are physically painful, and I can only process one substantive auditory input at a time. This becomes a problem if I am in a meeting, for example, where several people are talking at once. Sustained exposure to bright light is also problematic for me. Living in NYC, I don’t end up in many super markets anymore - we have corner stores and bodegas instead - but whenever I find myself in a Walmart or other superstore, I get a headache after 10 minutes of the bright lights, thousands of products, and constant motion and sound of crowds of people. I keep the overhead light in my office at work off, and use floor and table lamps instead, for a softer atmosphere, since I spend many hours a day there. When coworkers come into my office, often they will look around and say something like, ”Ooh, mood lighting...”
As indicated in the Understood.org's explanation, sensory issues are rooted in a person's brain and how the brain processes information coming in from the senses. For my part, I think my over-sensitivity derives directly from my brain consciously noticing and processing so many more of the details that a neurotypical brain would automatically filter out or process on a subconscious level.
Instead of seeing a hardwood floor, I see the color, stain, width, and wood grain of each board. Instead of hearing a tree of birds, I hear 5 distinct bird chirps of varying pitch, frequency, and volume, standing out amidst a background of sustained bird chatter. The amount of data quickly becomes overwhelming, resulting in “sensory issues.”
My senses work too well, and my brain doesn’t automatically dull them or filter or redirect to help me focus on what’s really important (the bigger picture). So I end up being bombarded all day by too many sights and sounds and smells, which I have to manually filter to try to take in and process only that which I actually need.
As I learn more about ASD and how it affects me, I am seeing connections between the highly-detail-oriented way that my brain perceives the world around me, and the highly-detail-oriented way in which I think and act. I have always been an overly meticulous, thorough, detail-oriented person - driven in large part, I can see now, from simply the way my brain works. Many people with autism are highly detail-oriented. Taking this to another level, it bleeds straight into why it can be hard for me, at times, to see the "bigger picture" in life or work situations - "seeing the forest through the trees," so-to-speak, which is another common ASD challenge. I will write more on this particular topic in later blog posts, but it is very helpful to see how the root of it stems directly from this same seed which also sprouts "sensory issues."
On the one hand, I wish I could tell my brain to stop working so hard. On the other, I see and experience how it can be hugely beneficial to be the person who catches the details when others miss them. Life is a balance, and we all play our part.