Sensory Differences for Those on the Spectrum
By Melissa K. Vassar-Belloso
There are a ton of things in the world around us that we not only take for granted but that we forget can be perceived differently by each person. It’s a weird thing to think about but each of us has a uniquely functioning mind that interprets the world around us in a one-of-a-kind way. The importance of understanding everyone is different applies to a lot of things in life so today I’d like to give you a brief look at how the world can look,sound, and even smell differently for a person on the spectrum.
The Science Behind Senses
The human brain is really important. It controls all the functions of our bodies. In a sense it’s really more important than even your heart. The brain can almost be thought of as a battery so when you think about people and differences, consider that each person is running on a different battery. When we put different types of batteries into a device they can sometimes run differently and at different efficiencies. Your brain is wired into everything and that includes your sensory functions.
When we think of our senses it’s not hard to understand they can be a good or bad experience. The concept of lights,noises,textures, or smells being uncomfortable isn’t completely foreign but I think what can be hard to grasp is when they become painful or disruptive. A neurotypical brain can clearly perceive a sensation being uncomfortable but it often doesn’t become disruptive to the person because a neurotypical brain balances the amounts of stimulus the person is getting. Additionally, a neurotypical brain can process very quickly to end that uncomfortable stimulus with usually little to no drama and process that experience appropriately so the person can continue with business as usual.
The other factor at play here is understanding the concept of sensitivity as it applies to our senses. We all have variations in how over or under sensitive our senses are. For instance, some people have more sensitive hearing than others and might hear frequencies others might not or some people might have more sensitive skin making touch a different experience. These sensitivities occur naturally in people but when we have deficiencies in them it has a lot to do with our nervous systems being different
The Spectrum Difference
Now with these concepts in mind think about all the environmental stimulus you run into during a typical day. You don’t have to think big. Consider the fluorescent light in your office, the sun outside, the sound of raindrops on a window, or even an innocent horn honk in your daily commute. Some of those are probably annoying to you but if you aren’t on the spectrum they probably won’t interrupt your entire mental stability. To give you some insight of the drastic difference for a person on the spectrum, I would describe those same experiences as a painful headache from the flickering and loud distracting buzzing,a blinding and tiring light that makes me want to faint,someone beating a drum lightly right next to my ear, and please stab me in the ears now. It seems like a harsh exaggeration but this is actually how I and a good number of people on the spectrum experience everyday stimuli. Going out into the world is tiring and sometimes painful when you’re on the spectrum because you can hear,see,smell, and feel too much and unlike a neurotypical brain you don’t have the coping mechanisms or thought processes to cope with it.
I suffered silently in my carpool for four years because going out everyday was exhausting and just plain awful for me. I pretty much always had a headache when I got home because by the time I steeled myself through 3 hours in a car and 8 hours in an office with all the heaps of stimulus those places are known to offer I was dead on my feet. But it was always so hard to explain to the people around me why I was tired. When you tell a neurotypical person that you were physically drained by sitting under a fluorescent light and listening to a few hours of car horns the message never really seems to get across. It actually took me a while to figure out that maybe those people didn’t hear the buzzing of ten beehives and see the constant flickering of the lights in my office or hear the shrill high-pitched whine in their car horn.
It actually took me close to a year to really realize the amount of differences between how my mind perceived things in comparison to people around me. I would be in agony at times and they’d seem completely fine. It was an especially big shock because up to that point I hadn’t noticed those things but as more and more of the wrong medications left my system,my brain started working how it was wired to and the world suddenly became a much scarier place to be. At first it was small. I started to notice a buzzing noise and couldn’t place where it was. I figured out it was light over my desk which was strangely now appearing to flicker more. I started noticing more and more around me like the whistling noise subtly hiding in the blast of the air vents and the distractingly chalky texture of my desk.
I also started hearing everything around me at some point. There are a lot of background noises that a typical human brain will filter out but when you’re on the spectrum you can hear everything. I could hear all the small conversations in the office,the footsteps brushing on the carpeting in the aisle near me, and even the bubbling of the coffee machine seemed louder somehow like someone popping a tiny balloon in my ear. For a good six month period I still pressed on and did my work through that but over time it just got worse instead of better and eventually the sensory overload reared its ugly head.
Sensory overload is something I’d almost compare very closely to a panic attack as I’ve had both before. I would say out of everything that crippled me at my last job that the sensory overload was the worst component. I could never anticipate it but when it hit, it hit hard. I would show any behavior from violent stimming to a complete loss of focus and sometimes something akin to selective mutism where I could only speak in limited capacity and to familiar people I was comfortable around. Sometimes I would just make a mad dash to an empty office and shut off all the lights,sitting and rocking in the dark room for an amount of time I couldn’t really gauge. Sometimes I would run into the bathroom and sob silently in a stall because I had no idea what was wrong and just wanted to curl up and die instinctively.
Sensory overload is scary because unlike a case of social anxiety it’s a condition that’s harder to connect to. It’s something that for all intensive purposes only exists to the person experiencing it because their mind is painting the world in a completely different color scheme than what’s considered normal. The level of paranoia and withdrawal created by sensory overload is significant because it instills a fear of things that are everywhere. It adds a whole new layer of terror onto a simple car trip or a quick stop at a retail store. It makes the idea of leaving your house exhausting without you stepping a single toe outside.
I get overwhelmed very easily from small experiences because I’m in fact getting too much of an experience. Things like loud noises,bright lights,people moving too fast,the feel of certain surfaces, and being around certain smells can cause me to become anxious and even physically tired or in pain. It even effects the kinds of food,clothing,bedding,or even furniture I choose. At times certain types of stimuli can even change my mood drastically. I can turn from flat or friendly to possibly depressed or agitated in a moment because of something in my environment bothering me. This was partially why I was initially diagnosed as having bipolar. The drastic contrast between the flat affect typical for a person on the spectrum and the high anxiety and agitation from sensory overload can commonly be misinterpreted as the ups and downs of bipolar disorder.
The Effects of Overstimulation and How to Deal with Sensory Overload
One of the larger side effects for me from sensory overload was that I basically shut down mentally. I would peak and then just bottom out all of a sudden to where I couldn’t focus,think, or communicate. My brain had no way to process everything going on around me and as a result it just seemingly stopped and so did the world around me. To be honest I’m still not entirely sure what the right thing to do is when sensory overload is happening. I only identified a few possible triggers for mine but never really got to a point where I learned to cope with them. When I was done being overloaded I was just done and my mind checked out for the day and wasn’t coming back to rejoin the party anytime soon. I missed a lot of work because even though I was there,my mind wasn’t.
It was always extremely hard to accurately communicate what was happening to me and even when I found ways to explain it there was always an apparent gap in understanding between me and the neurotypical people around me. They always wanted to know what they could do for me and I could never tell them. There are a lot of reasons this communication gap exists but what I’ve learned over time is that it’s a mix. Both sides are confused. On my end as a person on the spectrum I have even less of an ability than normal to interpret or read the person across from me and and on the neurotypical end of things I’m sure the way I communicate is just as confusing and trying to understand I need to go home because of noise and light just doesn’t compute. To a neurotypical person they really are just lights and noises,not something to mentally and physically shut down over.
Adding to that confusion is that some people on the spectrum can be very upset about something but display a flat affect. There’s a very distinct disconnect created by that because a neurotypical brain will try to recognize and match moods,information being fed to them, and facial expressions. When a person says they’re upset but comes off as flat and monotone this can cause an inability for the human brain to properly grasp and interpret the situation. It was an issue I often ran into because when I did have sensory overload I didn’t cry or have an overtly emotional tone. My face often defaulted to a flat expression but this was especially true if I was overloaded.
I have over time learned to recognize that not making a face or having a discernible voice tone is disturbing to some people and whether they do it intentionally or not they show that in the face they make back at me. It’s not necessarily an emotion I can interpret on a deep level but rather a common reaction I’ve learned to identify with people I interact with. I confuse people and no amount of that bothering me will make me able to be more emotive or force an expression onto my face. Sometimes I just feel nothing and that’s part of my daily reality.
People on the spectrum often also do what is called stimming. Stimming is the repetition of physical movements, sounds, or repetitive movement of objects common in individuals with developmental disabilities, and most prevalent in people with autism spectrum disorders. For some it can be rocking,shaking, or pacing but it can also be a repetitive hand motion,kicking,making a certain noise continuously or even biting. Stimming is something unique to each person on the spectrum so it’s a behavior that manifests differently for every person.
If you see the person with sensory overload stimming and it’s not dangerous or distracting you don’t necessarily need to stop them. Stimming is actually how some people on the spectrum calm themselves or let out excess energy. It can also be how some people on the spectrum process an emotional response. You also don’t need to point it out if the person isn’t dangeorus or distracting. Stimming is often done somewhat instinctively so the person may not be fully aware of doing it. Pointing it out can sometimes add a new layer of anxiety when the person already has a lot to process.
If you do see a person stimming in a violent or destructive way such as biting themselves or slamming their head into something then approach them with understanding and try to calm them without being too intrusive or excitable. Staying calm and getting them to a safe area is the most important thing at that time.
When sensory overload is happening it can be very hard for that person to communicate what they need and I think that deep down some people do want to understand and help. We’re reaching a point in our society where the inevitable situation is that a lot of people on the spectrum are going to be out there existing alongside neurotypicals and more than understanding what my world is like,understand that I and a lot of people on the spectrum want that and just want to be understood as people.
Understand that I am indeed a little different and my world might look,sound,or feel a little different than yours. I may not always be able to express that but understand the best thing you can do as a person outside of my world is acknowledge it exists. Don’t patronize me and don’t pity me. If you want to help me than understand that sometimes you can’t but there are simple things you can do to show me you’re making the effort to bridge that communication gap. Help me find a comfortable place,listen to me without judging me, and make an effort to take what’s happening to me as a genuine and serious problem. If you can give me your time and understanding then eventually I can start giving you trust because as a disabled person I’ve been hurt a lot in my life and it’s a lot more difficult for me to trust people.
While sensory overload can be a difficult issue to wrap your mind around, the first step in handling it and helping someone dealing with it is to adopt a willingness to understand without judging. You don’t need to be scared,intrusive, or go to efforts to ignore the person. The more we shed the idea of differences being negative,the more we can bridge that gap to understand and help the people around us.
A big part of understanding the world of a person on the autism spectrum is that we need to grasp that world is different and just because you or another neurotypical person may not see the big deal, it is a real and disruptive problem for that person on the spectrum. The world is a whole lot scarier when all the lights are brighter,all the noises are louder,all the smells are stronger, and all the textures are more prominent. The key to change will be when we make the effort as people to better understand the perspectives outside of our own and bridge that gap of communication between neurotypicals and people on the spectrum. The world isn’t going to stop being a little loud and scary for those people but if those on the spectrum can start trusting and finding comfort in the neurotypical community around them, maybe it’s fine if the world is a little scary sometimes.