Autism Sensory

Seeking or Avoidant? Or both???

As autism is becoming better understood, we are beginning to make sense of autistic behavior and its relation to sensory processing.

Because autism can be described as uneven development of one’s neurological system, we are finding ways to sort and define these neurological “styles” of sensory processing.

Since each of us has differently developed neurology, we will have different struggles.

Roughly, these struggles and resulting behavior fall into two categories.
For some of us, our senses may get easily overloaded or overwhelmed. We may find that lights are too bright or that flickering patterns cause distress. We may find that things we hear become painful or distressing, annoying or anger producing when we can’t stop them or control them as they happen.

We may find the way things feel against our skin becomes distressing, too light of touch, too prickly, too stimulating in situations where we are in a breeze, cold or hot water, using lotions, being scrubbed with brushes or rough cloths, etc. We may hate the way something feels in our mouth, be overwhelmed by tastes, smells, or other sensory input. When we are overwhelmed by our sensory input, we become avoidant… try to avoid these experiences at all costs and when we can not escape to our own comfort level, we may flee, shut down, or melt down.

Those of us who need to escape our sensory input frequently and who do so in many ways, from refusing to go places, refusing to try new things, refusing to wear certain clothing or eat certain foods, hiding our eyes , covering our ears, turning our backs or running away…are called sensory avoidant. We must avoid sensory overwhelm and struggle to maintain performance of daily living while coping with and trying to avoid “too much input”.

The other broad category of sensory struggles falls in the opposite direction. Those of us who are sensory seeking require sensory stimulation and more sensory “input” than what our senses process in daily living.
We may enjoy jumping, in all forms, bumping into walls or furniture or other people, running, swimming, spinning, pounding, rolling, and any other physical experience .
We may smell, touch, or taste all sorts of things, in fact it is almost impossible to resist the impulse in many cases, even when doing so may be considered highly inappropriate.
Sensory seekers are more likely to hit or bite themselves, to deliberately seek sensations of hot or cold, bright and flickering lights, seek sounds of all sorts frequently at volume. Sensory seekers may want to be held or stroked, cuddled, may like deep tissue massage, the use of sensory tools such as mitts and brushes that provide different “feels” upon the skin, and may enjoy tight clothing or weighted vests or backpacks.

In some individuals, processing may be mixed, with certain experiences being overwhelming and others being sought.
Each of us is very different, each of our sensory systems are unique, so one must work to sort which sensory forms of input are appropriate or must be changed or carefully adjusted to prevent either overwhelm or to help satisfy the need for more stimulation .

Once we recognize the way we process input from all of our senses we can make adjustments to our lives to make every day living less struggle and more satisfying, safer, and easier overall.

Most articles on the internet, and most studies about sensory processing and autism are , of course, aimed at children. Very little information is available about adult sensory processing. Thinking back to your childhood, perhaps you will recognize patterns of behavior that will help you figure out what sensory experiences you try to avoid and what sensory experiences you might seek and enjoy, and wish to experience more frequently.

Are you sensory avoidant, sensory seeking, or do your both avoid and seek sensory input ?

Autism and the sense of touch

Sensory processing differences in Autism includes how things feel

We rely on our sense of touch to tell us about the world around us. Like all our other senses, processing of the input we get through how something feels to us can be skewed, from being super stimulating, irritating, distressing, soothing, or simply not feeling much at all.

The differences in autistic sensory processing can cause “every day” experiences of things we touch or feel to be distressing or even painful.

On the other hand, we can experience pain or other physical stimulus on much lower levels than what is considered the “normal” or “average” (neurotypical) experience.

Textures of food cause many issues with eating, from the way it feels when it touches our lips, feels in our mouth, or how it feels as we handle it (slimy, gritty, lumpy, greasy, sticky, chunky, sharp, hard, thick), food textures and temperatures can stand out as extremely uncomfortable experiences to many of us. This becomes a problem if we are forced to “clean our plate” or to try things that are extremely uncomfortable to us. Our hesitation to try new foods may be directly linked to fear that the taste or texture will be overwhelming to us.

Textures of clothing we must wear can often give us much distress. Is the fabric knotty, rough, too smooth and slippery, does it have seams in places where it feels uncomfortable? We can be super sensitive to pressure of restricting collars, cuffs, waistbands and the like.

Some of us respond to snug lycra or other close fitting clothing with a great deal of pleasure and comfort and others (like me) avoid that ‘squeezing’ slick texture due to extreme discomfort of being “touched all over at once”.

Some of us can be absolutely unaware of any clothing issues never notice that our shoes are giving our feet blisters, that the garment is far too tight or loose, etc etc.

Textures of the things we touch throughout the day can be distressing, from the utensils we use to eat, from the carpet we walk on barefoot, to the fabric upholstering the furniture, to the sidewalk, street, lawn, sand on the beach, the feel of the bath or shower under our feet or as we touch the enclosure surrounding it, the plastic or fabric shower curtain, the texture of the door we must open and close to enter or leave the hours or our rooms, etc etc.

We can become desperate to avoid the sensory overload of touching or experiencing the feel of many things throughout the day.

This sensory experience may well begin in infancy, long before we have words to describe the distress we are experiencing and probably is the cause of much mystification among parents trying to figure out what is distressing us children.

Sense of touch/ the way something “feels” is also involved in our ability to use tools, to do things as simple as walking or sitting, lying down, or standing. We use the sense of touch to help us know our surroundings, how much pressure to apply with our feet to push ourselves along as we walk, run, how much pressure to apply when we give hugs, give a handshake, or a kiss!
We need to be able to feel the pressure we apply and learn to judge how much to use when we open and close doors and drawers, open and close a jar lid, use eating utensils, lift and replace any objects from the surface it is resting on (think about how many times we do this daily).

We use touch and the way things “feel” every day in so many ways. If having my hair brushed feels like a thousand razors against my scalp every day, I will fight that sensation with all my might. I am not just being stubborn and willful, it HURTS!

If I avoid washing my hands because I hate the feel of that cold water running between my fingers, can we find another way to get my hands clean?

Most times we encounter resistance to things like baths, showers, shampoos, getting dressed, putting on our shoes, or using certain utensils or products for self care or household chores, it is not out of stubborn will, it is because these things are causing discomfort. Even as grown adults, we may not be able to explain for ourselves, we only know we hate it and want to avoid it because of the way it feels to us.

Children and many autistic adults are famous for resisting, but how many of the struggles we face might have the roots of resistance in pain, discomfort, or distress caused by the way we experience the task we are asked to deal with?

Even if you are grown up and living on your own, are there things in life that you avoid or simply hate?

There may be ways to make the experience better by adjusting the way it feels.

If you hate to bathe because of the rapid change of temperatures on your skin as you undress and how it feels to have the shower change temperatures, if you hate the feel of the water running over your face.
If you hate the feel of your wet hair when you shampoo, etc etc, there are other ways to get the job done. Think of the things you hate the feel of the most (might take some sorting to recognize what exactly is causing the distress) and make small changes to avoid those sensations.

If you hate the feel of using a washcloth, can you substitute a sponge or one of those nifty new silicone body brushes?

Will you be more willing to wash and dry off if you don’t use those stiff scratchy towels but instead dry with flannel, or velour/soft fabric of some sort?

Lots of sensations can be changed to make the experience better, regardless of what we struggle with.

We can often change the way something “feels” by using a substitute or doing things differently.

On the other side of this question is the “non sensitive” person who doesn’t notice much about what they may be feeling.(not emotions, the way something feels to our bodies physically) .

Blisters and sores on feet or pressure sores from sitting or lying too long in one spot, cuts and bruises which seem to suddenly appear with no memory of how they got there, even limping and not recognizing we have broken a toe or another bone…. lack of “feeling” or recognizing the feel of something as important and needing attention can sometimes be helped by occupational therapies which help us interpret what we are feeling, and helping us find and recognize when something hurts or is not right.

What is interesting to me is that hyper sensitivities and hypo sensitivities can exist in the same person or can vary with time, place, experience, even from hour to hour or day to day.

If you are not diagnosed yet with autism, the way you experience things you touch, or that touch you, might be another clue to being autistic.

Autism Anger

Shhhhhhh don’t talk about that!!!!!

Autism has a few “sore spots” that seem to be avoided as topics for discussion in the forums I participate in. When somebody does open up, there is a flood of responses, seemingly relief in finding that individuals are not alone in their struggles. I am talking about emotional regulation struggles this time.
Autism and anger, autism and emotional breakdowns due to anxiety, fears, frustration, and inability to cope displayed as meltdowns, shutdowns, violence, tantrums, and outbursts.
We all understand this happens frequently to many of us. But we are ashamed or afraid to talk about it.

Autism is all about our neurology. Many of the ways we experience the world are not the same for us as “neurotypical” or average, “normal” or non-autistic people. Struggles with emotional regulation are definitely not limited to autistic people, we see examples everywhere of people behaving with one or another form of problems with emotional regulation.

Emotions and responses to those emotions are things we generally learn about when we are very small (people in general).
We are taught to recognize our emotions and how to deal with them in socially acceptable ways, usually before we leave home for school days.
Learning to recognize emotions can be helped by explanations given through instruction person to person, videos, books, and role playing, role modeling and other ways.
Learning to recognize emotions and learning ways to express those emotions in healthy and socially acceptable ways takes practice. The good news is that for the most part, these are skills that can benefit from a coach or teacher, a therapist or a counselor.

Sorting and learning to recognize one’s emotions and how to deal with them in healthy ways is part of the sensory system ( remember I said emotions had a neurological basis?) called interoception.

Interoception used to be considered part of the proprioceptive group of neurology but more recently has been removed to its own special category.

Interoception has to do with what you feel physically inside you. It is the sense which tells you what you are feeling when your body gives you physical clues to your needs and wants. That empty feeling in your middle is telling you that you need to eat. The pressure you feel in your lower regions means you need to use the bathroom. The tenseness of your muscles in your stomach and legs can mean that you are afraid and ready to run. The tenseness of your muscles in your neck, your clenched jaw, your tight fists may mean you are getting ready to fight.

Autism often interferes with our ability to recognize the first physical signs of our emotions… so we end up surprised at our own emotional outbursts and our extreme reactions to emotions we did not recognize we were feeling until they reached crisis proportions. The body experiences emotions in a physical way and we can learn to recognize the signs.

Many of us have not been aware of or have not learned to notice the physical signs of emotion. Elevated heartbeat? Heavy breathing? Weak pulse, feeling faint, tight muscles in any part or parts of the body? Feeling sick to one’s stomach, clenched fists, gritting teeth or tight muscles in lips, jaws? Smiling, grimacing, frowning, head lowered or thrown back? What we are feeling physically and doing with our bodies is a huge clue to how we are feeling emotionally. Many autistic people might not recognize body language in others, and many might not recognize our own body’s signs as well. We can learn!

In the forum discussions I have participated in and observed, many autistic adults have remembered that as children they decided emotions were not useful and made deliberate choices to disregard them or to hide them. This seems generally to have been “early on” in the nursery or as a very small child. We can learn to recognize and make use of our emotions, but it does not come naturally to may of us. It is one more thing we might need help with to sort it out. Especially this might be true in older people who are set in their ways and less likely to realize or recognize alternatives.

It is never too late to learn about interoception and how to recognize our building needs and emotions before we reach the bursting point.

Occupational therapists might be able to help, and there are many anger management classes, biofeedback specialists and therapists who specialize in behavioral difficulties. There is much printed and online regarding how to recognize emotions early inside us and how to use that “early warning system” when we recognize it in order to work with our emotions in healthy ways instead of finding ourselves in a huge and surprising/ distressing/ destructive/embarrassing/ blow up situation.

If you struggle with overwhelming emotions of any sort, I want to encourage you that this can be changed, and new ways can be learned to recognize our emotions, to direct and control them into healthier behavior in distressing situations. We can learn to recognize and use our interoception skills as an ‘early warning system’ to detect and divert our physical reactions to emotional situations and make better choices in how to express ourselves or to deal with those emotions before we are overwhelmed and helpless in still another emotional blowout.

If this is an area of distress for you, please be encouraged, it is something that can be helped.
We can learn new ways, sometimes we need to reach out to others who can help us sort it all out.
Don’t be embarrassed or ashamed to take action. Those folks are there because they want to help and they want us to live better lives. There is no shame in asking to learn new skills. And the benefits are beyond measure in terms of the quality of your life and your relationships to others as you move forward.

What do you hear?

Sensory input and autism HEARING

I thought it might be useful to discuss sensory struggles in a little more depth.

I want to stress that sensory struggles for each individual with autism will be different.

It is probably understandable that I have no idea how my own experiences compare with those of ‘normal’ or NT “Neurotypical” individuals or others with autism.
I can only report my own experiences, explain them to the best of my own understanding, and let you decide for yourself if your struggles are the same or different.

I woke up this morning feeling a bit slow and did not immediately get out of bed. Instead I let myself wake slowly and soon became aware of the sounds surrounding me there in the dark.

I could hear my partner breathing deeply and hear the gurgle and rumble of his tummy , the sound of his body against the sheets as he moved and readjusted his position under the covers.
We are having a small storm here.
I could hear the rush of the wind outside in gusts that caused sounds through the branches of close by trees and the hedge near our home. I heard the sound of multiple twigs and small branches hitting the roof, the window, and the side of the house (each sound is different but sometimes they are also simultaneous). Each sound burst when the branches hit the house is sudden and slightly surprising, random and not rhythmical.
I could hear the roar of the lake a block and a half away. The sound of those rushing high waves pounding the limestone and sand is very distinctive.
I heard the water in the radiators rushing and gurgling, I could hear the clicking of the switch on the boiler thermostat turn on and off and could hear the pump initiate itself to push the water through, it hums.
I could hear the low drone of the dehumidifier in the basement.
I could hear the ticking of the clock on the dresser.
I heard our refrigerator running and then shutting off.
I heard the traffic on the highway intermittently when the wind was not gusting.
I heard the sound of the car belonging to the guy who delivers our newspaper every morning. I heard the newspaper hit the porch.
I heard the pie tin placed as a squirrel baffle on the neighbors bird feeder flexing and making tinny noises in the wind.
I heard the dog walking restlessly from room to room and the faint squish of her paw pads, the faint click of her toenails on our laminate floors, and her sighs.

I could hear faint very high ringing in my own ears, ( tinnitis, something fairly new to me and quite annoying) my breathing and for a short while the thudding of my pulse in my ears.

After a few moments I got up to start my day. It was almost 4AM and most people would say the house and even the city was dead quiet at that time.

I am completely unable to edit what I hear at any point in my day.
When I hyperfocus on a book I am reading I am not conscious of any outside noises and people must touch me to get my attention even if they are standing in front of me speaking my name or yelling across the room. I do not do that deliberately, it is something that just happens when I read.

Now think about the sounds I will hear during waking hours and when I go to any new place.

Think about when I was a small child at school and trying to sort out important sounds from those which had no meaning or significance to the learning and schoolroom.
I was surrounded by other small children, each of them snuffling, squirming, scratching, giggling, whispering, toe tapping, finger thumping, hand clapping, playing with pencils, paper, erasers, crayons, scissors, and the sound of the teacher’s voice, the sound of 30 pairs of little feet on the floor, the sound of chalk on the blackboard, turning pages, school bells, the intercom announcements, sounds of chairs being pulled or pushed into place, walking rustling , calling, talking, whispering others as they all passed through the hallways to the buses with motors running just outside, the sounds of traffic, passing airplanes, mowing or snow plowing, and I could list so much more. How is that little autistic kid in the class NOT going to get into trouble for “not paying attention”… and those are just the sounds.

I have learned to sort significant sounds from non significant ones as I have gotten older, but what seems to have been fairly easy for most people has taken me a lifetime, and new environments all call for adjustments and new learning in the new situations.
How difficult is it for an autistic child without the advantages of experience or insight? How difficult is it for an autistic adult in workplace environments?

How difficult is it for an elderly autistic person newly placed in a nursing care or hospital environment?

More soon on other sensory processing issues.

What happens when we have struggles not just with hearing but also with other sensory input?

( hint, most of us have multiple sensory struggles)