Autism and sensory processing

Texture, pressure, how does it feel to your skin and your body parts?


Sometimes it is not obvious that we have sensory struggles with the sense of touch/feel, yet so many problems in every day life are based in processing touch or feel of textures and issues with over or under stimulation regarding the sense of touch.

The way something feels to us can be one of the biggest hurdles of all to overcome.

Let us start with over stimulation or hypersensitivity.

For many of us bathing is a very distressing experience. The feeling of our skin being wet, or slick with oils and lotions, the feeling of powder slipping and spreading lightly over our skins, or the use of cloths, sponges, brushes, or any of the numerous tools sometimes used during a bath or a shower can cause immense distress. The feeling of the water moving over us as in a shower experience can cause fear, anxiety, actual pain, cause panic and an immense desire to escape the feel. As children, bathing chores are signals to fight against the sensory overwhelm.
Please understand that not only all the ‘feels’ of a shower or a bath are ‘wrong’ or distressing to sufferers, but add in the sounds, the lights, scents and other distressing sensory input and perhaps our resistance is more easily understood and perhaps even cause for a bit of sympathetic insights in devising plans to ‘get the job done’ with least discomfort to the person who must bathe ( shower, shampoo, brush teeth, clean or clip nails, etc.)

Resistance to many situations is probably more likely due to sensory struggles than it is due to deliberate disobedience or obstinancy, or naughtiness. If we are fighting your ‘agenda’ it is more likely due to the sensory distress that your plans for us will bring upon us.

Many autistic people are acutely sensitive to the clothing they must dress with. Seams on socks, cold prickly zippers, sticky labels with pointy sharp edges, garments that are stiff, scratchy, itchy, have seams, are fluttery/noisy, crinkly, too tight in the wrong places or too loose or flappy/flowy- can all cause the person wearing them pain, anxiety, distress, discomfort. No wonder those little kids can’t sit still!!!!!

Many hate the feel of a breeze or wind or water on their faces, arms, exposed legs or torso.
We may hate the pressure of hats or scarves or fear things across our face even momentarily. I remember how difficult it was to wear glasses as a child, even though I needed them desperately. I simply hated the feeling of pressure across my nose and resting on my cheeks and digging into my ears.

Sudden touch, touch of either light or heavy pressure, the feeling of being squeezed or tickled or pinched can send us over the roof with anxiety and fight/flight.
Some respond with relief to overall pressure such as hugs, wedging oneself between cushions or in any small place where we can give our bodies more pressure will be soothing.

On the other hand many will panic and feel trapped or overwhelmed. Trying to imagine Temple Grandin’s famous “squeeze/hug machine” and its use on myself gives me shudders and makes me feel panic.
Weighted blankets work for those who may seek sensory pressure, as will compression clothing or bandages…. the idea of any of those will send others ( like me) into fight/flight at even the thought.

Issues of touch can be tied into proprioception and struggles in processing what we feel. I must touch a wall or rail as I go up or down stairs to ensure I know where my body is on that staircase. I rely on feeling the pressure of my body weight with my feet firmly on each step before I proceed to the next one. If I walk from a room to another, my hand touches the furniture and the wall to make sure I am negotiating the space safely. I was repeatedly corrected to “keep your hands to yourself” or “keep my grubby hands off the wall” or furniture because those who cleaned behind me found my hand and finger prints annoying.
I have a poor sense of where I am in relation to my location in my world at any time and my sense of touch helps me keep upright and from crashing into things.

Texture of carpets, blankets, clothing, upholstered furniture all caused problems for me when I was quite small. I remember one house we lived when I was age 1 to almost 3, in which the living area included an ancient wool carpet. I refused to play on it repeatedly, much to my mother’s annoyance since I always moved to the edge where the cool smooth wood floor was not prickly and sharp. I was then in the traffic zone and underfoot. But I had solved the issue of the painful carpet. The sofa we had at that time was covered with tiny tufts of nylon and very bristly to the touch. This too caused me distress, and it was difficult to make me sit on that thing in a dress or a pair of shorts/sun suit… I didn’t mind when I had on the winter clothing which protected most of my skin from such insults. We had that sofa for years and I remember the color, the rows of bristles of the fabric, and the smell and the feel of it with no pleasure! I don’t believe others experienced that sofa the same way.

For me one of the worst things is sudden touch from strangers. Don’t get me wrong, I dislike touch from those close to me too, unless I have time to prepare for it.
( slow touch can do this too- I can’t stand the idea of massage… a stranger touching and rubbing, pressing, etc etc on my body is just unimaginable horror, even though I can imagine the horror part very well. )
I suspect that some of that comes from the association of sudden touch with motherly spankings and siblings’ torment such as tickling and pushing associated with aggressive treatment of my very early childhood right on through adulthood. “conditioned response”? But still the immediate first reactions to avoid touch could be because it is simply too alarming. I am afraid something I don’t understand is going to happen before I have any idea what that ‘something’ will be. Usually it was some sort of discomfort, so that sudden touch is first alarming. I don’t have time to prepare for whatever is coming. Maybe it is instinctive. I doubt many people welcome sudden touch.
My reaction is simply on the more extreme end of things. I startle very easily and am constantly hyper vigilant to avoid situations where I will be startled or grabbed, probably because of my hyper sensitive initial reactions as a child and the pleasure so many people over the years have taken in stimulating that response for their own purposes?

Texture of foods and the way they feel in ones mouth is something that is repeatedly discussed on the online forums I participate in. So many people avoid foods because of the texture, rather than the taste… too sticky, gummy, too hot or cold, too greasy, crunchy, stringy, slimy, gooey,chalky, chewy, lumpy, grainy, runny, chunky….

You name it, somebody somewhere in these forums have lists of foods they don’t like because of the way they feel in the mouth or going down one’s throat. It would be interesting to take a poll to see what foods repel the most of us and why. For many autistic people sensory issues can interfere with eating and cause dietary problems, failing to get proper nutrition due to avoidance of things disliked due to texture or feel. ( add the way things look or smell or tastes to be avoided and you can see how distress over the way a food feels can contribute to the struggle )

Understimulation of the sense of touch can also cause problems for us. Many seek pressure, seek sensations of hot, cold, or cause pain simply for the experience and possibly for endorphins released due to some pain inducing behaviors.
Self injury is one of those frequent autistic behaviors that are often not discussed on open adult forums. There is a deep sense of shame and self blame, fear and anxiety, and emotional pain surrounding the person who seeks sensory stimulation by self injury, and most are afraid to discuss this issue for good reasons. The social stigma of such damaging behaviors is real and strong, and I believe many are afraid to bring this issue to the forefront or ask for help because of shaming and blaming that goes along with it.
In the near future I will be discussing this issue involving the sense of touch and feel in greater detail.


2 thoughts on “Autism and sensory processing

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