sensory processing, executive function, and learning to recognize discomfort before it leads to a meltdown . . .
Somewhere in my early reading about Asperger’s, I came across this idea: If something is bothering you, you can do something about it.
That seems like deceptively simple advice. If you’re cold, put on a sweater. If you’re hungry, eat something. If the sun is in your eyes, move or close the blinds or put on your sunglasses.
For a typical person, the idea that you can get up and put on a sweater if you’re cold is probably not an earth-shattering revelation. In fact, it’s something they’ve been instinctively doing since childhood. The typical brain receives an incoming message about physical discomfort, finds a solution and swiftly acts on it:
typical body: I’m cold.
typical brain: We’re underdressed. Stop what we’re doing and put on a sweater.
typical body: Good idea!
This is where the typical person gets up from the computer, goes to the closet and takes out a sweater. But for a lot aspies, the body-brain communication is dulled to the point that we appear to not feel pain, cold or other physical sensations in the way that typical people do. You often hear parents of autistic youngsters say that their children will play outside in the winter without wearing a coat or will injure themselves but continue playing like they haven’t noticed.
Based on my experience, I don’t think we necessarily feel pain or cold less. I think our body-brain communication is muted. As a result it takes a lot more sensory input from our bodies to provoke a reaction in our brains.
Here’s how my brain functions:
body: Something’s not right.
brain: Uh-huh . . .
body: No really. I feel strange.
brain: Yeah yeah . . .
body: I think I’m cold.
brain: Shhh, I’m busy.
body: Yep, definitely cold.
brain: Okay, I get it, you’re cold. Hmmm . . . maybe we should do something about it.
body: Look, I have goose bumps.
brain: I’m thinking!
body: Now I’m shivering.
brain: Okay, go get a sweater.
Even when I get to this point, I may put off stopping what I’m doing to get that sweater because in addition to the sensory processing issues of AS, there is the issue of poor executive function.
To understand the complex brain-body interaction problem that aspies struggle with, it might help to break it down into a few parts and look at them separately first.
Those of us with ASD have a tendency to put with stuff until we can’t anymore.
From childhood, we learn that the world is full of annoyances, big and small. Our clothes have scratchy tags and seams. The kids around us never shut up. We suffer through bad smells, weird food, annoying noises, uncomfortable temperatures. The list is endless and it differs for each of us. But I’m betting that one thing we have in common is that we get used to being physically uncomfortable.
Maybe we get used to it not only because we’re more sensitive to physical sensations but because the physical discomfort signal often isn’t strong enough to cause us to act on it. This sounds like a conflicting statement. How can we both more and less sensitive to the physical world?
Often I find myself feeling uncomfortable but I’m so deeply engaged in what I’m doing, that the discomfort hovers at the edges of my consciousness. It exists as low level background noise, not serious enough to make me stop and think about it, but not minor enough that I can completely ignore it. So I put up with it until it becomes truly impossible to ignore.
Of course, by that point it’s long past the time when I should have acted and the minor annoyance has ballooned into serious discomfort.
So what’s going on here? Why can’t an adult with supposedly above average intelligence figure out that she’s cold and the obvious solution is to get up and walk across the room to the closet to get a sweater?
Scientists still aren’t exactly sure how and why aspies process sensory information differently from typical people. The simplest explanation is that we have difficulty prioritizing incoming sensory data. For example, when a typical person walks into a strange place, they quickly and instinctively filter out the unnecessary information from the necessary. In a doctor’s office, they zero in the reception desk. In a coffee shop, their brain immediately sorts out where the ordering line is. In a busy train station, they filter out the distractions to focus on the directional signs pointing them to their platform.
If just reading about those unfamiliar situations raised your anxiety level, you’re not alone. The aspie brain takes one look at the busy train platform gives equal weight to the directional signs, the map on the wall, the crying toddler, the homeless man shaking his cup of coins, the stale underground smell, the roar of the trains, the sound of the bathroom hand dryer, the person brushing up against you, the uneven flooring, and a million other sights, sounds, smells and physical sensations.
Like so many other things, what typical people do instinctively–filter out the sensory noise to identify the relevant inputs–the aspie brain does through a logical process of elimination. Given enough time, I can stand in the busy train station and find the correct directional signs, but it will usually take me longer than it would take most typical people.
So how does this apply to those everyday annoyances that we’re so good at ignoring? Because we seem to receive so much of our environmental data at the same “volume” level, it’s hard for any single piece of information to rise above the rest and get noticed. Typical people instinctively sort those same incoming signals by priority and the “I’m too cold” signal will get mentally red flagged. This red flag message then interrupts the part of the brain that’s engaged in work to say “hey, we’ve got a problem over here.”
The aspie brain doesn’t seem to red flag sensory input until it reaches critical levels that make it physically impossible to ignore. By that point it’s often too late, and a meltdown is imminent.
Unfortunately, the sensory processing issue is only half of the problem. Even when I notice that, yes, I’m too cold, I still tend to ignore that information for as long as possible. Often I’m probably investing more energy in ignoring the annoyance than it would take to get up and remedy the situation.
So it’s not that I’m not uncomfortable. I am. Just not uncomfortable enough to take action.
This is where executive function comes into play. Executive function is an umbrella term that covers things like planning, problem solving, mental flexibility, multi-tasking and initiating and monitoring actions. Poor executive function is why aspies often have trouble switching between tasks, starting and stopping activities and planning ahead. It’s also a big part of why we put up with stuff that could be easily fixed.
For an aspie, the time lag between detecting the annoyance, formulating a plan to deal with it and then taking the required action can be long or even indefinite.
What appears to be a simple problem–this thing is bothering me and I need to do something about it–has very complex neurological roots.
Yeah, I know what you’re thinking. All of this theory stuff is great, but what can I do?
You Can Do Something About That
The first step is being attentive to what your body is telling you. For me, the feeling that something is physically uncomfortable is very specific. It hovers right at the edge of my brain, like an itch that I can’t quite reach. I’ve begun to practice listening for that feeling when I’m engaged in something else.
The second step is consciously prioritizing that feeling as early as possible after you notice it occurring. For example, as I was about halfway through writing this, I started to get the itchy feeling. When I came to the end of a stream of thought I paused and disengaged my mind from writing enough to realize that the sun was shining on my laptop monitor, creating a glare.
The next step is identifying a solution. Is this a problem I can easily fix? How? In the case of the glare, I looked around and realized that there is a shade in the coffee shop window next to me and it has a pull chain that would allow me to lower it.
The final step is, of course, acting on the problem. If the solution is simple, try to act on it right away. It can be hard to stop what you’re doing to take that action, but once you do, you’ll be able to concentrate much better on your activity. I try to use that as an incentive to break away and do what I need to do. Since I pulled the shade down, I’m no longer squinting at my monitor, my face isn’t too warm from the sun and I know I won’t be leaving Starbucks with a headache.
Don’t be surprised if it takes awhile to get the hang of doing something about the little things in life that bug you. At least fifteen minutes passed between the time I started to peripherally sense that something was wrong and the time I lowered the shade.
Retraining our brains is hard work and requires some patience. Rather than feeling bad because a typical person would spend about 15 seconds on a process that took me 15 minutes, I try to focus on the fact that a year ago, I would have just kept right on typing, squinting at the glare on my monitor and feeling miserable.