In my last post, I mentioned that people on the spectrum or those who have Asperger’s Syndrome easily get overwhelmed by everything that assaults their senses at the mall. This is actually true wherever we go, although it differs in what we feel and what sensory inputs overwhelm us. This is due to the fact that we have a lot of difficulty when it comes to processing everything that we see, hear, taste, smell and touch; and sometimes, this can also cause us to become overly tired when we go out as our brain isn’t processing all this input at the same rate as neurotypicals. However, even though we all experience this, just as every individual is different and unique, this affects each autistic individual in a different and unique way.
In order to illustrate this more, imagine that you are standing in the middle of a public space. Think of everything that you might hear, touch, taste, see and smell. Now imagine that you can sense all of that in HD, magnified by a hundred. It’s disorienting, distracting, and very much overwhelming for those whose brains cannot process them as quickly as its supposed to. This can cause us to become irritable and can also result into meltdowns.
For me, the most obvious sensory sensitivity issue I have has to do with the sense of touch. Ever since I was a child, I loved to wear comfortable clothing. I cannot stand wearing anything that’s too itchy, makes me feel to hot, and cannot have things such as lace or tags that poke at my skin. Seriously, there are some tags on clothing that feel as if they are stabbing my back to the point that literally have had to remove the tag from that item of clothing. This is also one of the reasons I prefer to go clothes shopping in actual stores, and I never shop for clothes online. I am very picky about the textures that my clothes have, so before I consider buying a piece of clothing, I have to feel it first to make sure that I wouldn’t find it too hot or too itchy. I also link this to why I dislike eating certain foods, as most of the time, it is because I didn’t like the texture of that particular food. I also hate crowded areas, as I am not fond of the notion of actually feeling other bodies around me, and I’m also pretty sensitive when it comes to others touching me. Also, I do like rubbing my hands on surfaces, fingering beads on my necklace or bracelet, receiving deep hugs, chewing on things such as straws and lollipop sticks, and I have a habit of squeezing or holding the hands of loved ones. These things actually keep me calm.
The second biggest sensory sensitivity issue I have has to do with the sense of smell. I am not fond of overpowering smells, which is why I am fond of wearing baby cologne, and I dislike strong and heavy scents. My sense of smell allows me to experience all these smells 100 times more than usual, so smells that I do find unpleasant and overwhelming immediately get a negative reaction from me. My sense of smell is so sensitive that I used to wake up every time a college roommate of mine sprayed her fruit or flower scented body spray in the morning, and that I recently woke up early on a weekend because the smell of cooking dried fish had infiltrated my dream. To cope with this, I try my very best to mask my own facial expressions, know what scents I like and try to mask and surround myself with scents that I like when these things happen. If all else fails, I go out of the area immediately.
Sound is probably one of the hardest things to cope with at times. With this, all the sounds in a mall just become one giant garbled mess at the most maximum volume; and even in smaller areas, small things such as a conversation, or a dog barking, can drive me to distraction. However, overcrowded malls with lots of attractions are the worst thing ever for me, which is why I hate going to particular malls where I know this will be worse, and it’s also one of the reasons I hate clubs. To cope with this, the easiest thing I know of is to drown out all other sounds and replace it with ONE sound that I enjoy or makes me happy or calm. This means that I’ll pop on my earphones, go onto my Spotify account or Itunes on my phone, and play something calming or something that I know will make me happy. The music I play really depends on what kind of mood I feel that I need to be in at that moment.
For me, I’m not as overly sensitive when it comes to the sense of sight, but I think that it is because this is less obvious to me as compared to the other senses. The more obvious one is my dislike for a lot of blinking and flashing lights, and especially strobe lights (which is why I don’t go clubbing and I dislike concerts). However, I do have trouble with depth perception, which is why I can’t really catch anything that people throw at me, whether it be a ball, or car keys.
For the sense of taste, it mostly has to do with certain food textures and tastes that I cannot take. When that happens, I usually look for something else to eat. For some odd reason, my sense of smell is also connected to this, because there are some food items that I don’t eat due to its smell. However, I do love spicy and food that is a little bit more strong tasting.
Interestingly enough, balance is also listed as part of this, which, for me, makes sense. Aside from the fact that I do have difficulty with my motor functions and eye and hand coordination, I also do a lot of sensory seeking when it comes to this area. Swaying, fidgeting, swinging my legs or arms, and even hand flapping are some of the things that I do in order to gain sensory input. I have always loved being on the swing at the playground, and rocking in my grandmother’s rocking chair has always calmed me down.
Apparently, body awareness is also part of this list, something that I’ve never thought of before. This explains why I do have difficulties with my fine motor skills, and the fact that I have a hard time judging and perceiving others’ personal space. However, I do cope by persevering and not getting upset when I have difficulties with buttons, and I do believe that I am getting better at staying at an arm’s length away from people sometimes.
Aside from you having your own coping mechanisms, it is also really great if you are around people who are aware of these issues and do remind you of these things from time to time, especially when you are not aware that you are doing something that others might find offensive. I’ve had friends and family remind me that they don’t want to be touched, ask me to move back as I’m in their personal space or they physically push me gently away so I can be out of their personal space, and I have friends who have wisely decided that we should stay outside instead of inside a cramped space during a party as they see that I am getting very distracted and getting overwhelmed even if I wasn’t totally aware of it myself at the time.
Sensory sensitivies are definitely a part of who I am and of being an Aspie. These aren’t things that I will get over or grow out of, but I can have some coping mechanisms and place and reminders of what to do in order to cope and deal with these things. So, it is definitely good for those who experience these things to know about their triggers and how they are sensitive to these things, so that they can come with coping mechanisms unique to themselves.
Again, as I have been discovering over and over again, it really isn’t about how you will outgrow or get over these things, but rather how you deal with them that does count, and acceptance of this really does go a long way.
Do you have any sensory sensitivity issues? If so, what do you experience and how do you cope with them? Sound off in the comments below!