Autism sensory processing

VISUAL INPUT what do you see?

I knew years ago that visual input was upsetting to me. Long before I knew about my autism, I knew I could not handle moving images or images of violence, suffering, or anything emotionally significant.
Seeing those sorts of images, whether moving or still give me emotional reactions that stay with me to re-live the feelings they evoke repeatedly and randomly, never knowing when thoughts and memories of those images will haunt me and torment me.

There is nothing I can do in most cases to alleviate the horror of these visual images once I have seen them. I learned as a pre-teen to avoid the nightly news broadcasts. The war in VietNam was the focus of almost every broadcast, the bloodier the better.
Repeated images of the Kennedy assassination when that happened, standards for what visual images were allowed on TV , newspapers, magazines, etc changed rapidly in the 1960’s and anything gruesome or horrifying was usually the opening story. “if it bleeds it leads”.
Not only do I struggle to understand moving visuals and always have a processing “lag”, whether it is something on the screen or a photo or actually unfolding ‘in real life”, but I find I am filled with a rush of emotions in the graphic visual input which seems as if it has no place to go. I experience horror, fear, angst, all the intended emotions meant to be drawn out by these images and the experience is immediately and continually emotionally overwhelming. I am battered emotionally and continually when I allow myself to be subjected to such images, whether real life images or scripted fiction being enacted. I choose to avoid this experience whenever possible.

I can not sort and file the experiences and tell myself “it is over” “It is just a movie” or use other filters which most people use when they have visual input. Those filters for me have never existed.


Add a sensitivity to sounds of suffering ( screaming, crying, pleading, anguish and pain) I find many tv or movie/video experiences too painful to subject myself to willingly.

Even in day to day life, I have always struggled with visual demonstrations of “how to do” from teachers, medical explanation videos, employers visually demonstrating how they wanted the work done, etc etc etc.
Give me a booklet with line drawings and printed explanations to illustrate these things and I will understand.
It all happens too quickly for me to sort the steps and expectations, listen to instructions and see what is being done… “are there any questions now?”
I always annoy the presenters of these things. Yes, there are plenty of questions.

It is as though I don’t have a working filter or a thermostat for the emotions aroused by seeing such things and hearing them.

My first memory of this effect is when I was taken to see Disney’s original Fantasia and my screams of fear at the skeletons in the bald mountain scene and the trouble Mickey Mouse was getting himself into (NO Mickey, NO NO!!!) and simply being “shushed” because it might annoy others around me. I was about 4 years old. I have been able to protect myself from such distress since I became old enough to choose not to participate in activities that are likely to lead to such distress.

It is said that visual processing is a strength for most autistic folk and that being able to visualize is our greatest ‘gift”. Not for me, and maybe not for many of us. I can not visualize a thing!
Don’t let generalizations lead you to forget autism is experienced on a spectrum, and not one of us is the same.
Is my reading considered a form of visual processing? Perhaps, but it is at my pace and although I rely on seeing the words to read them, my “inner brain” speaks the words and I have always thought my reading experience was more sound oriented (the sound of the words in my head to myself) than visual.

Perhaps my inability to visualize in my head has much to do with the processing of visual things. I do not recognize people out of context, this includes in movies when there is a change of scene and wardrobe. (who is that guy? Oh, that’s the hero of the story?) I am repeatedly made fun of because I recognize none of the movie stars, tv heroes or other popular characters. ( OK, I just realized I do still recognize Mickey).
I do recognize voices after listening to them just a few times. I surprise my tv watching husband when I announce that the voice belongs to X actor or actress… I am usually right. Can’t recognize a face to save my soul, but give me a voice.

Sometimes I imagine myself in a nursing home at some point (one out of 3 people eventually spends at least a month in a care home before end of life) and can only be horrified thinking about the managed use of the common room several times a day , and me being forced to listen to dozens of people, a blaring music intercom and a TV turned up to accommodate those who are hard of hearing. If I am unfortunate enough to be unable to move myself, I could be plunked down somewhere facing a TV with horrible images, screaming and crying, in a room full of din and things I would never choose to see, people I would ordinarily hide from, and subjected repeatedly to this…. There are no ways to describe the resulting misery. Perhaps you can imagine for yourself.


Edited a few days later to add more content.
Visual processing issues can also cause much distress in everyday living. One often reported distressor is light that is too bright, light that flickers, light that is the wrong color or too direct, too focused, too diffused. Think of all the ways we see light in our day. I get motion sick due to the rapid changes in light/flicker effect/ inability to process moving images. I can get sick in a car, or I will get sick watching any rapidly moving images on TV, Movies, Videos, and video games. I always do better in a vehicle when I am driving, perhaps because I can correct the motion of the vehicle and affect it in a direct way, or because I am more in tune with the motions of braking, turning, stopping, slowing down or speeding up and can prepare myself for such things and correct for them. Wearing very dark wrap around sunglasses seems to help keep shadow flickers from affecting particularly my peripheral vision, and I am sick a lot less now that I finally learned that trick.

Visual struggles and issues with bright light, colors, patterns, and shadows can cause much distress for those unwillingly subjected to certain conditions.
In many cases, those of us who are prone to seizures (about 30 to 60 percent of autistic people, depending on who is reporting the issue) will react to flicker and rapidly changing visual input by seizing.
Reports of meltdowns caused by the flicker of a fan throwing shadows repeatedly across a room, motion observed through a window and resulting reflected light changes, etc. are frequent. The affected person might not even recognize what is distressing them.
If you experience distress when you are in certain situations you might be able to seek out causes when you recognize problems with light and visual processing. Many autistic people wear sunglasses or colored lenses which seem to help change how we process visual input.

Reaction to Diagnosis

I don’t know if it is the same at any age

I have not looked at any studies, but I participate in several autism based groups online. Ideas stated here have for the most part been formed on my own experience with encountering autism, and reported experiences from adults in online groups I belong to.
Each person’s experiences and perceptions will of course be different.

I think it might be a bit more difficult to shift gears as we age. Autism is known to cause rigid thinking. We older autistic folk have had plenty of practice at forming rigid ideas by the time we reach our 60’s.
Is late diagnosis of autism more shocking to those of us who are elderly? I suspect that it is.

As older adults, we have overcome or adapted to many struggles alone.
We have spent a lifetime believing we are “normal” but also believing we are somehow different, incompetent, selfish, bad, wrong, stupid, useless, thoughtless, inept, uncaring, rude, intrusive, hateful, and on and on… a litany of fixed ideas in our older and less flexible brains, learned in our earlier life and more or less accepted as inner truths because we did not know about autism. We have set ideas about ourselves and others and how the world as we see it works.

We may have wondered why we struggled, but learning at last,( although it is sometimes a relief), that autism is the answer, we may suddenly find ourselves scrambling to find a new platform to view our innermost selves.

It is as if the ground we have stood upon for so many years is crumbling.

The foundations of the house we built our ideas on is being torn down.

We will need time to replace these with ideas about our selves and how our diagnosis of autism makes everything different.

Many older people report feeling shocked at first, even though they knew, deep inside that somehow they were ‘different’.
Knowing about autism changes all of the concepts and precepts we may have held about ourselves and our world.
Knowing that we have been wrong in the way we understood almost everything in our worlds, well, that is a lot to digest!


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Let me insert a warning here. Your autism is hugely important to you, but it will be of little consequence to most all of the people around you. They will be likely to react by passing off the information of your self discovery lightly, and assuring you that they still love you etc. .
They will be likely to make ignorant statements about “everybody being a bit autistic” or they will deny it… never mind, don’t argue. Don’t take these things personally. Your diagnosis will mean the world to you, but as in all things, most people will not be able to understand and since it doesn’t affect them personally, most will simply not be very interested. That’s OK. It does not mean they do not care about you, they simply don’t see the significance of your discovery. But they will see the results as you work though your new understanding of your self!


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Learning about our autism is a shock in the way that a sudden loss is… but this is loss of self identity.

Most people newly diagnosed with autism report going through the stages of grief. Shock, denial, bargaining,sadness, anger, acceptance. All appear and disappear, in any order, in rapid transition or slowly over days and sometimes years.
Do not be surprised at your emotional responses to finally learning you are “on the spectrum”.

My major reaction on figuring out I have autism/am autistic was relief. I knew there was something different about me, but had not a clue as to the nature of my struggles or why I seemed to have so many difficulties with things that others seemed to find easy.
I have been grieving in an ongoing way for years, but now I have an answer for that too. I have been sad for the loss of opportunities and things that ‘might have been’. I have regretted so many incidents of the past where I made bad decisions, misunderstood motives, misjudged so many people or situations. I have been angry over many of those things too. Nobody knew!
Feeling cheated of an ordinary life (whatever that is!) and wishing I had known or simply not been given autism as my share in life, feeling extraordinary relief and curiosity on learning how I was different and why… all going round and round inside me.
I bet you will feel similar things and a whole range of emotional turmoil. It is like being engulfed and having to learn to swim. Not a piddly little word, but one with great meaning and consequences “autism”.


Newly diagnosed with autism means loads of emotional homework, lots of looking for new ways to interact with one’s world, and new understanding of so many painful things from the past.
Please give yourself time to process all the new information, the new ways of looking at life and others, the new things you learn about yourself.
It took a lifetime to learn all the ideas that now are being shaken and tested from new perspectives.

Many new ideas will take the place of some old “stinkin’ thinkin’ “. , Many old ideas will be discarded, pains will be dug up and revisited from new perspectives.
I like to say I am a work in progress. My growth in understanding of my world, my self, and everything that applies to these things has been phenomenal. It has been the most exciting thing, freeing, uplifting, a sort of fresh start in a new and better world, to learn of my autism and to learn how to live better through my better understanding of how autism has touched every part of my world for the previous 65 years before I knew, before I began to understand so many answers I found when I found out about autism.


It is my deep hope that the medical community and those learning about autism to apply to professional practices today will be able to help not only children and families dealing with autism, but will be able to diagnose and explain their autism to old people just like me, but who remain still undiscovered and struggling with their Autism without knowing.