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.


Roadblock, lesson learned

The time came to pack for the appointment for my assessment.
I knew that I liked this doctor and had confidence in his knowledge and experience, and in my ability to communicate effectively with him. I have been anxious for weeks now, hoping I had finally found a Dr who knew and understood autism.
The first meeting he indicated that he thought I had autistic characteristics but he wanted to make sure some of them had not been caused by early childhood trauma or other conditions.

He was interested in interviewing my spouse for clues to my earlier ‘self’ since both my parents are long gone and my siblings are not available.
We filled out forms without discussing them, to be compared and discussed together with the doctor.

We set out the night before to stay at a motel nearby rather than travel 4 hours for the 9AM appointment that morning.
Restless night in a strange place. Anxiety rising.

We presented ourselves at the reception desk next morning , saying we had an appointment for 9AM with DR_________ .
The receptionist looked stunned.
“DR ________? Surely not, he has not been here for weeks!”

Our turn to be stunned. It turns out that the Dr had surgery shortly after my April appointment and had not recovered.

The person who had cancelled his other appointments missed the entry for mine, perhaps because there were empty pages in his appointment book between early April when I had been there, and July. ???

I am saddened to think of his family and think of all the good he did for so many people, and I wish them peace and comfort. Of course it was not spoken directly, but I got the impression they don’t expect him to recover.
I am upset for them and also for myself. I am disappointed and still adjusting to the fact that I will need to look once more for a Doctor who is familiar with adult autism and diagnosing old ladies. A rare bird indeed.

The lesson learned (and it is obvious in hindsight) is to call ahead and confirm any appointment which is out of town before heading to the meeting.

Autism diagnosis for an Old Lady

My next attempt at getting a professional diagnosis is less than a week away.

I find myself very nervous, on edge, near tears sometime.

Summer is always busy and I have a lot to do. Maybe being busy is good because it keeps me from fretting, something I am very (very) good at!

I trust this doctor, and he has many years experience with autistic people. My husband will come with this time. We have been given a “homework” sheet to fill out and have been cautioned not to discuss it with each other. I think the Dr wants to compare our observations. Dr will also spend time interviewing my spouse. This was something that I was told would take place during my first “assessement” but which never happened… anxious about that too.

Almost everything I want to do from here onward depends on a positive diagnosis, and I have no idea what will happen if he gives me another diagnosis (schizoid has been suggested, but I disbelieve that).

Everything I have read about autism seems to fit my childhood experiences, my personal life experiences, and my work experiences.

I am no stranger to other diagnoses as there are others with those in our family… and our daughter experienced multiple diagnoses over the years until they ‘got it right’.

I do intensive research on any subject which interests me, and neurological brain disorders (mental illness and other associated conditions) has been one of my areas of study.

If this Dr says I am not autistic I will be devastated emotionally because I already identify as autistic and I know it will upset my self image… which already happened with the first “assessment”.

I am so concerned that many older adults are being missed, and misdiagnosed as having other mental/neurological conditions. Particularly women, who are likely to be diagnosed as one in 143 cases, as opposed to one in about 50 in males.

Women simply show our autism differently, or are more adept at hiding our struggles.

So many doctors here in the USA have no understanding of autism, even neurologists and psychologists . I hope by gaining credibility with a professional diagnosis that I can further interest in late diagnosis of adults.

The ironic thing to me is that so many of the professionals we are depending on for diagnosis and self understanding are mostly not trained to understand us and give those very diagnoses.

Autism Diagnosed late in life

When I first started writing here, I could only find a small handful of elderly

autistic adults who were writing… elderly being subjective… there were several authors

in their mid 40’s, one or two in their early 50’s, and none over 60.

I have been giving consideration to whether having self diagnosed (still chasing ‘official’ diagnosis, one of the subjects of this blog) my learning of my autism has changed anything? Has knowing about my autism changed a thing?

Many people have asked, what good does it do, to have a diagnosis at this age?

I have to admit that it doesn’t change my disabilities or handicaps, not one bit.

I still struggle with all the sensory processing issues in the same old way.

I still suffer emotional distress, still struggle to understand context, intent, and other issues involved in any social interaction.

What has it changed, this knowing after all these years that i am autistic?

It has changed my outlook and my attitude. I no longer see myself as hopelessly inept.
It has allowed me to forgive myself for all of my weaknesses.

I now know my failures are a side effect of my sensory struggles, and not a moral weakness or a lack of inner strength, a weakness of character.

I am beginning to understand my strengths and the way my own mind works.

I am beginning to understand so many things that I misunderstood because of my not knowing about my autism and my lack of insights in so many parts of my early life due to a complex mix of family and social issues during the time I grew up.

I have been reading and learning for almost 2 years now, intently and for hours almost every day.

I finally am beginning to understand how difficult my life is and would have been under any circumstances due to the autism. I knew it was difficult, but now I know why, and I can congratulate myself on coming so far with handicaps nobody understood, rather than punishing myself for not measuring up in so many ways. That alone has been worth more than anything else! My self image is more in perspective with reality.

My self worth is now visible. I had never valued my existence or seen myself as other than undesirable, unworthy, a failure, a burden, an affliction to others. Autism with its rigid perceptions and inflexible rules had me caught in believing things I had been taught about myself from an early age without being able to see beyond those early ideas.

Knowing about my autism, that I am not to blame for all of the things that troubled me and troubled my family and associates, and knowing that others did not know either, answers almost every “why” I suffered with for so many years.

It has allowed me to move on to learn about and understand more about myself than I had ever understood before.


The answer of knowing it is autism is an explanation, not an excuse.

I am responsible for my own behavior, beliefs, morals, values, actions and reactions. I have made some terrible mistakes, terrible choices, in my past. I will continue to have failures in the future.
If I have successes it will be because my knowing I am autistic has not changed my disabilities, it has actually sharpened my understanding of these, but it has also allowed me to understand myself and the reasons for the results of so many issues of the past.

Diagnosis of autism will help me understand better ways to go about dealing with things in the present and in the future. I have new insights from a totally new perspective. I like this side of autism much better than the place I had been for my first 65 years. What a relief to finally know and understand!


I hope more autistic folk of later years ( old people like me!) can find answers to the questions of their pasts and have the relief of knowing that autism explains so much.

In the near future I hope to put together a short description of autism in older adults to be distributed to medical facilities, public agencies of all sorts- nursing homes, senior center,homeless shelters, library, etc. to help people consider autism as a diagnosis in struggling populations. Still working toward an official diagnosis, anxious to get to work.