Smell and Taste

Sensory struggles are also part of autism

Although the DSM does not list sensory struggles as diagnostic for autism, almost all autistic individuals will have some sort of sensory processing issues.

Eating and feeding issues are common points of discussion and concern on autism parenting forums. Autism is linked to higher incidence of eating disorders, and is linked to struggles to gain or maintain or control weight.

Taste, texture, scent, moisture or fiber content, and more can enter into the difficulties we encounter with food while being autistic. The smell of any item, food or not, can be a stimulus, attractant, or repellant to the point of causing meltdowns or vomiting. The way an item of food feels in our fingers or tastes in our mouth can give delight or cause us to gag and rebel, developing extreme avoidance to keep from encountering certain food experiences again.

Other autistic individuals may be completely unresponsive to taste, texture, smell of items and therefore have no interest in eating or may indiscriminately devour everything presented to them.
Some may go as far as tasting and eating things that usually don’t end up as food because we find the smell and or taste interesting or appealing.
It is not particularly unusual to encounter both aversion and unresponsive reactions to varying food items in one individual.

You may be one of the folks who love to smell anything new that you encounter, smelling the pleasing items over and over, or using scent personally, in candles, oils, sprays, etc etc etc in everyday living, or you may be a person who loves to take a taste of almost everything for the same reasons.
It took a long time for me to recognize that I am one of those who appreciate scent and I savor the experience of including some of my favorites in every day life.

Others are super sensitive to the point of being offended by most scents and will go to lengths to avoid the experience. I still gripe about one toy of my daughter’s when she was quite small, which had a chemical ‘scent’ deliberately added to the vinyl it was made of. I hated that thing!
( this was over 25 years ago). I still have not recovered from my aversion. Again, I experienced extremes in both reactions to scent.

Depending on the individual, our reactions can be “off the charts” in either direction when we experience flavor, taste/ scent, or odor. I don’t know how frequent such reactions are in neurotypical populations. I think sensory processing disorders of scent and taste are probably hardly studied at all.

Senses are often more extreme in the young and we may learn to tolerate or may no longer experience taste and smell in the same way as we grow, develop, and learn to tolerate some experiences. As in all senses, with autism, we will experience extremes more frequently than what is considered typical of the majority of the population.

Now I think I’ll go light one of my favorite scented candles.

Autism sensory experiences

The senses of smell and taste

Since the sense of smell and taste are more or less intertwined in several ways, I thought I would talk about them together.

Some of us really have issues with odors and scents, and either/or/also have struggles with the way things taste.

Our senses can be either hyper sensitive, or completely oblivious, and for many of us, these states can alter from time to time. It is not unusual for me to tolerate unusual odors over and over, and then one day the same odor will make me feel sick or dizzy or cause a headache. This is my experience as an adult. I have read many reports saying that sensory experiences , especially smell and taste, can be very much stronger in youngsters.

Stress can cause us to focus on one sensory experience and make it seem worse than it was when we were in the same room, smelling the same thing for hours without reaction. Or perhaps it is just that my overall self awareness is higher on certain given days.

Some days I might not notice a scent as though my sense of smell did not operate at all.
The same can be said for tastes.
It has been proven that the sense of smell enhances or provides much of the experience of things we taste.
Our neurology being uncertain or unreliable many times, we are often wary that we may have too strong a reaction to new experiences of odor or taste.
Some of us may become very fixed in our behavior surrounding going new places or trying new foods, because of strong responses of the past and unwillingness to experience such strong reactions again.
This fear of reaction or sensory overload is not only experienced with smells and tastes, but also with any sensory issues.

I have seen( and or experienced) these self defensive behaviors dismissed as being picky, obstinate, unreasonable, labeled “goofy” or “stupid” , ridiculed, demeaned, scoffed at, punished, dismissed as not important, and forcibly made to experience the undesired response again and again. I am sure many autistic persons can relate.
I remember being forced ( as avery small child) to eat everything that was put on my plate at risk of being spanked when I did not comply.

This was a common ‘child training’ procedure at the time I grew up ( in the 1950’s) you did something they said was wrong, you got spanked.

It did not take long for me to start screaming “no, no, no” with every spoon full I saw being dished onto my plate.
I was frequently spoon or hand fed , being admonished over and over to take just another bite. My face was held as the food was spooned in and I was punished if I dared to spit it out.
I refused to eat at all after experiencing that for a while, choosing to get the spanking over with rather than spending the meal time in dread of the inevitable.
When it was understood that I could not be forced to eat the items and the quantity that my mother chose for me to eat, when and how she wanted me to eat it, she finally gave up using force at meal time.
The damage was done, and meal time was traumatic for years.

Many autistic folks on the forums I attend report similar struggles with smells and tastes, and similar trauma as the result of being forced to smell or eat things that were offensive due to strong sensory responses.
Many report getting ill frequently in situations where they were forced to deal with adverse sensory input.
This too also applies to being taken places that were painful and distressing and being forced to ‘perform’ in many ways that were distressing, painful, or causing anxiety and fear.
It is no wonder that so many autistic adults (and children) are also diagnosed with anxiety and depression. We have had absolutely no say as to our experiences, have been forced repeatedly to endure what can only be described as stressful and painful circumstances and experiences, and scolded, punished and shamed when we were not equal to the situations we were forced into.

Strong responses to avoid sensory overload are seen as willfullness, issues of control or disobedience, dramas staged to gain attention, manipulative behavior to ‘have my way’ over parental/teacher authority. I suggest that it is self defense when faced with sensory responses that are too strong to control.
Meltdowns in the face of expectations to overcome intolerable sensory overload are not “tantrums” but true traumatic response to being asked to bear something that is actually unbearable.
One might perhaps be “trained” to endure more and more exposure to these sensory overload situations, but it is unreasonable to expect us to willingly submit to such demands, then to expect us to “enjoy it”, and unreasonable to expect us not to do all we can, especially as powerless children, to attempt to avoid such experiences.

As an older adult I can make my own decisions for what to eat, how much, and when.
I choose my own products to use for bathing, shampoo, cleaning, decide where smoking will be allowed, if at all, and I have the choice to use air fresheners, air cleaners, scented candles or ‘scent distribution’ products, laundry soaps, and other products.
I control the sensory experiences that surround me and I am able to excuse myself if the lady who sits next to me in public wears too much perfume or the smell of the burnt nylon coming from the neighbors garage is too bad – I can shut the windows.
I am able to choose my own meals, and season them to taste, I can find alternatives if I don’t like what is on my plate. I can choose something else.

Please consider young children at school, in day care facilities, even at home.
Consider please, older autistic people in care homes, hospitals, institutions, old age facilities and other residential situations where there is no choice.

How can we make things better for those individuals?
How can we make others aware of struggles which are not obvious but which cause so much distress and needless suffering for these individuals?

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.

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.

Autism and Interoception

How are you feeling?

Have you ever heard of interoception?
This a sensory function which is still being described, and there is still some disagreement over what its definition should include.

Interoception is the sense of your inner self which includes the ability to feel what is going on inside you.

The initial definitions were about giving a person ability to recognize inner physical symptoms of needs: when you felt hungry, thirsty, needed to go to the bathroom, felt pain or discomfort in your internal workings.

The definition has been refined over time and using recent studies now includes also your emotional status.

Studies are in the initial stages but tend toward showing that neurological ties to the inner body are the same that are used for ‘feeling’ emotions, and that yes, emotions are tied to physical feelings as well.

We all know that, if we think about it. Tension headaches, anxiety stomach aches, the burning that comes with anger and the churning gut of distress, and how do you suppose the term ‘heartache’ was coined?

Right now there is debate over which comes first, the physical sensations or the emotional processes involved in recognizing ones “feelings”. Some scientists are saying that the physical responses are the initial ones which cause us to then recognize the emotions behind them.

I think the jury is still out on that idea, but it is interesting to think about the implications.

Interoception as it is described today is related to recognizing physical and emotional status of our inner selves. It is the neurological sense that tells us ‘how we feel’ in the most literal way.

How is this likely to be tied to autism?

Interoception is believed to exist because of human neurology. It is being defined as another sense.
We are equipped with an internal monitor through a network of nerves which sense and report “how we feel”.

Autism being a function of neurology and strongly tied to sensory processing, can show its effects in any part of the human neurological system.
Many autistic people are not good at recognizing when they are hungry, thirsty, tired, whether their bladder is full, and on and on.
We are notoriously poor at sorting our emotions as well.
All of these issues are related to interoception because they are all issues of sensory processing within us.

I will use imaginary Sally as an example.
Sally was late to be toilet trained, she simply was not able to tell when she ‘had to go”. She often wet the bed. Her body did not wake her when her bladder was full because it did not recognize that discomfort.
Sally had a ruptured appendix when she was 25, and did not recognize the abdominal ache, which she reported as vague and undefined. She finally had uncontrollable vomiting which drove her to the emergency room where she was barely in time for her life to be saved by immediate surgery.
Sally will get so involved in a project that she forgets to eat, and when she finally does eat, she does not know when to stop, often getting sick from overeating.
She is known for her volatile temper and her extreme emotional outbusts.
All those struggles are likely to have their base in processing input from her interoceptive system.

Do you have signs of interoceptive struggles in your own life?