The Difference Between a Sensory Sensitivity and Disliking Something

This is part 2 in a series about sensory sensitivities and atypical sensory processing. Read the other parts:    Part 1  |  Part 3  | Part 4

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I don’t like pistachios.

I have a sensory sensitivity to bright lights in a dark room.

What’s the difference between the two? I can eat pistachios if I have to. I won’t enjoy it, but if I happened to be served something that had some pistachios on or in it, I could eat it without having a negative biological reaction.

On the other hand, I can’t watch TV or look at a computer monitor in a dark room. The brightness of the screen is painful and my instinctive reaction is to look away or close my eyes. If The Scientist and I are watching TV at night, I need a small amount of ambient light to reduce the contrast between the television screen and the darkened room. Without it, I’ll squint at the screen and quickly develop a headache.

I know this because, like the t-shirt incident, I’ve tried to acclimate myself to watching TV in the dark.

I can see how someone who doesn’t know that I have sensory sensitivities might assume that I dislike watching TV in the dark in the same way that I dislike pistachios. If you’ve never experienced sensory sensitivities, it can be hard to believe that they’re real and that they have a biological component to them. But my body’s reaction to those two scenarios is very different. 

To understand how, think about the difference between chicken nuggets and a nice juicy slab of raw chicken breast. One is something that you might dislike and the other is something that I don’t think any of us could eat under any circumstance without a strong physical reaction to the texture, taste, and smell of the raw meat. Having a sensory sensitivity is like eating raw chicken. It’s beyond a preference. Your body reacts to the sensory input in a way that signals danger.

Please don’t anyone try to disprove my analogy by actually eating raw chicken because eating raw chicken is really dangerous and would make you very ill. Which brings me to my next point . . .

Our Senses Keep Us Safe

When you think about the function of the sensory system, it’s easy to see how our senses protect us from harm. Eating raw chicken would make a person really really sick. It might even be fatal, if someone were particularly vulnerable to salmonella or other foodborne illnesses. I bet when you read that sentence above about eating raw chicken you had a visceral reaction and recoiled at just the thought of what putting it in your mouth would feel like. That repulsion is a protective mechanism.

One of the things our sensory system does is keep us safe. Even if we didn’t know that garbage was harmful to ingest, we wouldn’t eat it because it smells and tastes so repulsive. Our senses of taste and smell actively prevent us from eating repulsive dangerous things. The same goes for smelling toxic chemicals, seeing an out-of-control car coming our way or sensing an intense heat source via our skin. Each of these “sensory inputs” is a signal that we need to act to keep ourselves safe.

Thanks to our sensory filtering system, incoming sensory data that is perceived to be harmful gets sent to areas of our brain that both help us make judgments on how to react and turn on our “fight or flight” response system so we can escape the impending danger. The garbage, the raw chicken, the noxious chemical smell–our limbic system says “yikes–get that away from me” and our rational thinking brain says, “hey, that could make you sick if you eat it.” Then we act or react accordingly.

This combination of brain functions helps us navigate our environment, spotting potential hazards and formulating logical reactions to them.

Except when it doesn’t.

Here is where atypical sensory processing can go from being a nuisance to being a major source of stress or a threat to our health.

Sensory sensitivities can mean that we have the same reaction to eating spaghetti or jello as we do to (hypothetically) eating raw chicken. Beyond simply disliking a food, we feel a physical repulsion–our body reacts as if the food is harmful. It’s a natural sensory reaction, but to the “wrong” kind of input.

This is why telling someone to “just try a bite” can cause a meltdown. Even a tiny bite of raw chicken would be intensely repulsive. The same is true of anything that triggers a person’s sensory sensitivities.

Sensory sensitivities aren’t about resistance to change, control, stubbornness, irrational fear, avoidance, oppositional behavior or any of the other things that our negative reactions are often blamed on. They are a real and very unpleasant biological phenomenon triggered by atypical sensory processing.

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What’s next: Part 3 of this series covers sensitivities versus filtering problems and what the wrong way to react to a person’s sensory sensitivities is, Part 4 is going to be a post on sensory diets and it quite possibly will be my first video blog *nervous stimming*

127 thoughts on “The Difference Between a Sensory Sensitivity and Disliking Something”

  1. I ate very little growing up because of this, certain textures made eating practically impossible. Very few people understood it, thanks for this post!

  2. I actually have a food-related sensory sensitivity(I think I mentioned that already on an earlier comment on this blog): I don’t really know the proper English word for it, but it might be “grainy”… Anyway: the texture of the meat of beans and peas. It makes me feel like I need to throw up.

    1. I can certainly relate to your issue with the texture of beans and peas!!! (particularly kidney / butter / soy / baked beans and split peas / chickpeas etc) … disgustingly mushy … in a gritty kind of way!??? 😦 … no thank you! .. at 37 yrs old I will STILL pick the beans out of chilli con carne before eating it!!! … interestingly enough a few years back I tried tempeh (soy bean patty) – and it was cooked for me by someone I did NOT want to offend …and I managed to ‘grin and bear it’ through the first one or two mouthfuls – which went down quite surprisingly sucessfully … but around the 3rd of 4th mouthful my throat was just no longer willing to swallow and the mouthful very nearly came back up … hmm – after that I decided i HAD to leave the uneaten portion on my plate – as the LESSER of two evils! 😉

      1. For me it’s onion. The smell alone causes me to gag, and I have great difficulty eating anything around anyone who is eating onion. The few times I’ve tried to eat it out of politeness, I’ve ended up choking because of the gag reflex. Between the smell and the texture, I just can’t eat it, not even well cooked.

        So I tell people I’m allergic to onion to save offence, because allergy is something they understand. It’s not true, but it saves offence without me having to gag my way through a meal.

        I wish people understood sensory reactions the way they understand allergy, then I could just be honest and say “I cannot eat or even smell onion because it makes me gag.” Oddly enough I can eat capsicum and things (I don’t like them, but I’ll eat them to be polite) which have a similar texture. Which comes back to “dislike vs sensory reaction”.

        1. Saying you have an allergy is a great idea, because there is so much awareness around food allergies and they’re quite common these days so people instantly get it. It’s not ideal but at least people won’t tell you to “just try a little” in the hopes that they’ll be the one to finally convert you to liking onions.

          1. I use the allergy thing for vinegar. It feels wrong to say I’m allergic when I’m not, so I usually say it in a way that makes people think I’m allergic, like “I can’t digest vinegar” or “I’m overly sensitive to vinegar”. It sounds a bit weird in English. In Dutch, it sounds similar to how people talk about food allergies, without actually saying they are allergic.

  3. So true! This is a completely apt description! I also would add that we do not mix up our dislikes and sensory sensitivities to get out of something we dislike. We take our sensory sensitivities seriously and want others to as well, so if we dislike something we will choose to go through with it to show the fact that it IS a possible action. We want to show the contrast that the sensory sensitivity is NOT a possible action – no matter how much we want it to be.
    This is why most of us deal with anxiety. If most people had to deal with sensory stimuli like us they would feel like they live in an alternate reality at times and feel the anxiety from that.
    I will be sharing this post for both mine and my kids benefit to further greater understanding!:)

    1. I think people who don’t experience sensory sensitivities would be stunned if they suddenly were able to feel what we feel. It can be so anxiety inducing to have to worry about how people will respond when we have a bad reaction to something.

      1. I never liked mayonnaise (in the sense that my senses can’t handle it, not in the pistachio sense), but I’ve been teased and ridiculed so much for it that even a PICTURE of mayonnaise now makes me physically nauseated.

        1. I feel the same way about mayo- ewwwww disgusting 🙂 if I get it on my fingers by accident (making kids’ tuna or something) my body stiffens and I wipe off with a paper towel. Same if it got in my mouth by accident- it did once. I was wiping my mouth inside with paper towels until I was satisfied it was all dry- and rinsing doesn’t work at all- I cannot imagine mayo water swirling around in my mouth- shudder, shudder, yuck!!

  4. The texture of celery is repulsive to me. As is the slimy part of tomatoes, and anything with similar textures.

    I’ve grown out of a few of the sensory issues I had with food as a kid – I can now eat mashed potatoes, for example – but the stringy texture of celery (or string beans, come to think of it) just makes me gag. As does slimy tomatoes.

    People who don’t get texture issues don’t understand. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard “If you can eat it when it’s all mashed up and pureed, there’s no reason you can’t eat it in chunks,” I’d be in a much better financial position.

    1. I don’t have a lot of sensory issues with food anymore, but the ones I do have are mostly related to either slimy textures or a specific taste that I can only describe as medicinal. A common comment when I try something new and decide I don’t like it is, “the taste is fine but the texture is too weird.”

      1. Taste is something that I can tolerate fairly well – I chalk it up to the fact that when I was a kid, I was sick a lot so I had to take a boatload of medicines. Theophylline, oral salbutamol, and predinsone all taste absolutely vile, but after I learned to stomach those and not throw up at those tastes, I could force down pretty much anything. There are some tastes that I will never like no matter what (olives, raw bell peppers, or overcooked mushrooms, as three examples – the latter of which remains one of the few tastes that can induce my gag reflex), but no matter how repulsive the taste, I can usually force it down – so long as I can chase it with something tasty.

        Texture, though? If something has a gagworthy texture, I can’t force it down, usually – and sometimes even if I can, it comes back up. Texture is one thing I can’t force for the sake of manners.

        1. I had this weird thing, even as a small child, that I actually liked the taste of some medications. For instance, we had a cough syrup that was sort of a “last resort” because it was supposed to taste really awful… but I preferred it to the over-the-counter sweet tasting non-efficacious cough syrup that was mostly just sugar and thyme. Not because of the efficacy, but because of the taste.

          1. There are some medicines I like the taste of too. Baby aspirin and that thick yellow cough syrup (that maybe they don’t make anymore) are the two that come to mind from childhood. I’m not sure if medicinal was the right word I was looking for – more of an herbal/medicinal cross maybe? Something rooty and earthy but herby and kind of bitter. I can practically taste it as I’m typing . . .

          2. I’ve only ever been at best indifferent to taste of meds. but texture is a bigger issue for me than taste, usually (olives being the exception – the taste of olives make me shudder and gag just thinking about it!).

            But yeah, I get you on weird taste liking – oddly, I liked (still do like) things with metallic tastes.

  5. Brilliant. I wish more people understood this. Your raw chicken analogy is great. “Sensory sensitivities can mean that we have the same reaction to eating spaghetti or jello as we do to (hypothetically) eating raw chicken. Beyond simply disliking a food, we feel a physical repulsion–our body reacts as if the food is harmful. It’s a natural sensory reaction, but to the “wrong” kind of input.” This was a particularly helpful section for me. There are many “normal” foods that incite my gag reflex. This goes way beyond just “not liking” a food. This is literally a “I will gag on every single bite if you make me try to eat this” situation. Of course it’s super frustrating to me. I’m not trying to make this happen. I would greatly prefer it if I could eat a wide variety of foods the way that other people can. I wish people understood the anxiety I get when I go to dinner parties or anything that involves eating unfamiliar food. Most NTs just don’t understand the stress of being uncertain if there’s going to be any food at an event that you’re capable of eating. It’s dreadful. But one thing that would make it less dreadful is if others were more understanding and gracious–and didn’t just assume I was being picky and ungrateful.

    1. I’m glad the analogy worked. It took me some time to come up with something that would be universally disgusting. 🙂

      It is super frustrating and I think a lot of people don’t get that it’s not something we choose or enjoy in any way. A little understanding (or at least nonjudgmental silence goes a long way).

          1. I was that kid who didn’t get that scene in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” with the eyeball that suddenly popped up in the soup bowl. Was that supposed to be awful? 😛

        1. I’ve eaten raw chicken on accident with no distress (though it is surprisingly much harder to chew than when cooked). But I cannot manage lettuce, or Jello, or pineapple at all.

  6. I hate the skins on fruits and vegetables, a major deterrent. Yet the raw chicken wasn’t repulsive at all…in fact, I want some. (The bad side of sensory sensitivity.)

  7. After having read all the related articles, there is one question that keeps popping up: how can you possibly buy and wear clothes that have been worn by other people before? I have considered the idea for years and it continues to feel repulsive. How can I wear someone else’s skin? But then, there are those moments when I feel cold to the bone and lost and forlorn in a strange world. That’s when I put on my partner’s jerseys, those huge woollen things that help me to get warm again, to feel at home and protected.

    1. I can see how this might be icky. I’ve always felt that way about used boots, because they’re impossible to wash. But clothing can be run through a hot wash and I think fairly well cleaned of the last person’s cooties. 🙂

  8. This is a really good explanation. I have some of the same sensory difficulties you described, like TV or computer screens in a dark room really bothers me. The taste and texture of food has always been a really big issue for me, too.

    There were a couple times in college when I forced myself past that feeling of being repulsed by food just to try it; the first time I tried pasta, I had maybe one or two bites before I had to give up on it, and by now pasta’s one of my favorite food. I couldn’t have done that without a lot of contributing factors, though; like, the school’s food system was set up so that you swiped your card to get into the cafeteria and then inside it was set up kind of like an all-you-can-eat buffet, so I could get try a bite or two of pasta and then get something else to eat, and I didn’t have to worry about what it would cost or whether or not anyone was judging me for it. I could never try a new kind of food if I also had to deal with the stress of a social situation on top of the stress of dealing with unfamiliar sensory input. When I tried new foods in college, I was always by myself and with a book to distract me. And I don’t think I ever could have gotten to the point where I could eat a meal of pasta if it weren’t for the fact that I really liked the taste the first time I tried it, even though the texture repulsed me.

    If I hadn’t wanted to be able to enjoy it, it wouldn’t have been possible to get past that disgust response. There are still tons of food I can’t tolerate – actually, there are probably more kinds of food that I can’t eat than foods that I can – but I think doing that helped me to figure out what some of my limits are.

    1. You make a great point about being able to try new foods in low pressure settings. I had a fairly narrow range of foods that I ate before I met my husband. He’s an adventurous eater and was always offering me bites of what he ordered in restaurants or cooked at home. I gradually expanded my palette without feeling like I had to eat a whole meal of a new food. He was also really low pressure and casual about it, which helped. Judging, teasing and pressure seem to be a theme in what people are saying here, which is sad.

    2. levoyageviolet – I could kiss you! (and musings you get some kisses too for these marvellous insights!). My son is a selective eater and has struggled with food for all of his 5 years. It has taken a lot of watching and listening but sensory issues seem to be a big thing for him – he selects food by how it looks and the packaging it is in. Texture causes him big problems too. We have been advised to follow Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility – she suggests that meals are served “buffet style” and not to worry about waste, and remove all pressure and stress. Your post has given me the conviction to stick with this and the confidence to know that I should just put stuff on the table again and again for him so he can work up to it over the years. I can’t thank you enough. You have just given me such a gift! xxxxx

  9. Now that I come to think of it, there was once a moment that I had the impression of having no skin at all to protect me. And, thinking further, that same feeling occurs when having to deal with minced meat (touching, eating), dough needing to be kneaded with bare fingers, certain fabrics to be touched etc.
    But sometimes it’s just funny: preparing for a wedding, transparent top needs undergarment, try daughter’s bra, sounds coming from my mouth make understand entire family that wearing bra after decennia living without is no option at all. Yes, we all were laughing about my sensitivities and there was no problem at all.

  10. Thank you this is really helpful, I have some sensitivities but my son struggles a lot especially with food. I try to explain to people that forcing him or starving him would be unhelpful and counter productive, like asking them to eat only fried tarantula, I ask them to think about how long they would wait and how hungry they would be before they wold eat that.

    1. Making a big deal out of it really is counterproductive and has to potential to turn simple sensitivities into an eating disorder. My parents were really great about never pressuring me to eat anything I didn’t want to and I think that made it easier for me to try new things as I got older, because it was never A Big Deal.

      1. I was under so much pressure when it came to food that it’s pretty much a miracle I didn’t develop an eating disorder. As it is, the only way that I discovered a healthy way to relate to food was because my mother doesn’t like cooking and started delegating some of that responsibility to me when I expressed an interest in learning how to cook at a fairly early age (I was solely responsible for the entire family’s pancake consumption by the age of 14).

  11. I used to have a lot more sensitivities as a kid– a mix of taste, texture, sound, and touch that made going to the dentist a total nightmare! Bet they had a patient file at least an inch thick for me. I still have some sensitivity today, which can really make taking medicine so difficult, among other things. Not to mention I’m old enough now that not wearing certain clothing items or turning them inside-out (such as socks) doesn’t get me in trouble. Hurrah! Also, technology is awesome; there’s gummy versions of vitamins and a lot of other things that didn’t exist when I was a kid, or at least not as commonplace.

    Have you tried f.lux for your computer screen? It’s a program that tints it according to the time of day as set by your latitude and longitude. I found it works well for reducing most of the headache induced by staring at a screen too long, though the new color changes will take a little getting used to. If only it worked on a TV!

    1. It seems like some sensitivities decrease with age. My food sensitivities are definitely a lot less now as an adult. And you’re right about being able to make adaptations as an adult and having a lot more options thanks to technology (and marketing genius).

      Thank you for the recommendation on the computer screen. I’d never heard of that but I’ll check it out. My tablet has a setting to adjust its brightness based on the room’s light which is awesome.

      1. You’re welcome! Brightness helps out tons but this changes the /color/ in subtle ways, even an option for a slow or fast transition. I love sharing any and all ways I’ve learnt how to adapt in the hopes it’ll help someone else out too. 😀

        Re: Sensitivity– It’s such a peculiar thing, isn’t it? Not only does it change with age, but in my experience certain medicines can cause a shift, too. It’s one of those unexpected things you’re not likely to see on any side effect list.

    2. I guess WordPress ate my reply to your comment.

      I think what I said was that it’s great to be an adult and have more controlover our clothes and food Choices, etc. And your right about technology making life better in so many ways.

      I’m going to look up the program you mentioned. I really appreciate how my tablet adjusts to the ambient light.

  12. I’ll definitely be sharing this one! I can never adequately express how much I *hate* mustard, for example. If there’s even a tiny bit in a sauce I can tell and probably won’t be able to gag it down.

            1. My younger brother has the exact same thing! I used to be very picky about types of cheese I could eat “raw” without feeling like throwing up, but it’s gotten a bit better with age. Still prefer melted cheese, though. I think it’s definitely a texture thing, since it’s only a problem with Gouda and cheddar type cheeses. Very hard cheeses like parmesan, or very soft ones like feta or stilton, I’ve never had a problem with.

            2. (And that included cheese on sandwiches. I even had this thing where if I had to eat “raw” cheese on a sandwich, I toasted the bread first, and then immediately put the cheese on it so it would get at least a little bit softer from the residual heat of the toast).

  13. I can relate to the light sensitivity. I am unbearably sensitive to bright light coming in from large windows when I sit close to them inside. I always position my back to the window otherwise I can start to feel quite sick which can easily escalate into a full blown migraine. I can help this by wearing sunglasses inside but this can cause unwanted attention too. Close friends are fantastic & automatically place me in the best position without needing any discussion. Colleges at work still don’t really understand & think I may be a little bit of a drama queen!

    1. Yes, sunglasses inside can make one look like a diva, I suppose. 🙂 But we really need to do what’s necessary to be healthy and minimize the chance of getting overloaded by things we know are problematic. It sounds like you have awesome friends!

    2. Have you been checked for pale retina? I was getting unexplained migraines for years and an opthamologist finally told me it was light sensitivity due to pale retina. Now i wear sunnies whenever I’m in a situation that has me looking at any kind of sunlight (even when it’s overcast) and voila! No more migraine.

  14. Thank you for clarifying. I think I’m borderline sensitive to taste; some foods will actually make me nauseous but I’ve almost never broken down over it (except once). Now when it comes to sound, I am SUPER sensitive. A stern teacher voice makes me cringe. When someone is simply being loud and obnoxious, I think they’re screaming at me.

    I suspect I’m undersensitive to lights (or sensitive to the dark? I’m not sure). Dim lighting usually make me feel dull or sleepy, like I’m living in the most depressing world ever, but if a store is particularly bright, I’m drawn to it like a moth to a flame, plus it makes me feel very energetic! My mood seems to improve a lot too.

    1. I’m by far the most sensitive to tactile things. Foods much less so. Sounds and light fall in the middle somewhere.

      That’s very interesting about your affinity for light. I find dim settings depressing too and try to choose living spaces that have a lot of natural but not direct light. I’m not really a fan of artificial light so being able to work by natural light during the day is important to me and I have to say, it does seem to energize me too.

  15. YES THIS.
    Mint scent? I’m across the room before I even realize that’s why I’m across the room, it’s that bad. And my friend who is generally considered to have a *better* sense of smell than I do doesn’t even realize there is a scent.
    Garbage scent? I mean, it’s gross, but I can deal with it.

  16. Yep, our instincts do a pretty good job at protecting us – if we listen. The more I’m listening, the better I understand why I want to turn tail when there seems to be no good reason. As a child I could not stand the taste of milk or paprika. As an adult I tried to force myself to act grown up and get over it. Turns out I can’t digest either of them properly. If you flinch away from bright light it means your eyes aren’t made for it. Energy saving lamps drive me nuts, for example. I HEAR them (or at least my guts hear the translation of their flickering light) and they give me headaches. Bright sunlight at noon? Heachaches as well. Might have to do with the fact that my skin is pretty sensitive, maybe my eyes act as a warning system for that. Better a temporary headache than skin cancer.

  17. Thank you so much for this. I can’t eat mashed potatoes or similar textures, like some squash. People always ask how I can eat ice cream or pudding. I don’t understand why people don’t realize how different mashed potatoes are from ice cream.

    1. They are definitely totally different textures. Root vegetables are very starchy and kind of fibrous to me. I like them, but they have a very specific texture that is nothing like pudding or ice cream (which are nothing like each other).

      1. I really think NTs must be terrifyingly dead in a sensory sense. It seems as if being one would be the equivalent of being permanently encased in the elkhide gloves we used to use when I did wildlife rescue volunteering as a teen. You need fear nothing short of a full-scale assault by the police K9 squad—but so many small pleasures would be gone, too. Mind you, there are the things I’m hypo-sensitive to as well, but by and large…I just can’t imagine what it would be like to not be ABLE to feel individual fingerprint ridges against my skin when they are clearly THERE—even if I prefer to only be touched through latex gloves.

  18. Any advice on testing the difference when you have a picky kid eater? I have often wondered if her pickiness is a sensory issue or plain pickiness. I know there is testing done for sensory integration issues, but is there any way at home I could see if that is what it is? Does anyone know of questions I can ask her etc to help to deliberate between the 2? She is 12 so she is old enough to answer intelligently.

    1. I’m not sure what picky eater means. I guess it means someone who eats only a small number of foods? I’m not sure if it matters what the reason is so much as how you deal with it. Too much focus on having to eat certain things or not having to eat certain things as a child can lead to eating disorders later so I’m in favor of making as little fuss as possible while guiding the child toward choosing mostly healthy foods within the realm of what they’re willing to eat.

    2. Mhm, a few ideas come to mind:

      1. You could first compare what she does and doesn’t eat. If you for example realize that the stuff she doesn’t like has a lot in common – that there is a certain “group” – like “boiled veggies”, “root vegetables”, “certain meat cuts” – that she doesn’t eat, maybe ask her what it is about this group that she doesn’t like.
      Her answer may sound weird. I used to call peas that were boiled to death “flour-like”, because that’s what they felt like to me, lumps of flour with a weird skin. Well, starchy is probably the right word, but I just didn’t know it.
      And no matter what she says, take her seriously.

      2. Concerning peas – I loved eating them raw sitting in the garden, peeling them right then and there. Try offering the foods she doesn’t like in a different way – veggies raw instead of boiled, potatoes baked instead of cooked, stuff like that, and see if it makes a difference. If it’s texture rather than taste, it probably will.

      3. Involve her in cooking if your timetable permits. Let her try food. Let her experiment with how long pasta boils for what consistency, how veggies react when cooked or baked, all this stuff.

      Hope some of that helps!

  19. Oh, this is gorgeous, this is be-a-u-ti-ful! I will use your analogy from now on. Raw chicken. Though the idea of actually eating it does sound interesting, now that I think of it …

    Food sensitivities?
    Coffee? Absolutely not touching it. Tastes like poison to me, even if “watered down” with milk and sugared to death. Even a tiny dab of coffee in a whole cup of milk – absolutely unbearable. Fascinatingly I do like some coffee-flavored sweets.
    Anything bitter in general, actually. And some sour stuff. I like the combination sweet-sour to death. But something that is actually really sour?
    Vinegar crisps – which my boyfriend loves – will make me gag. Too much vinegar on a salad and I will not eat it no matter what I am bribed with.
    Certain kinds of lettuce don’t work at all – others I like.

    Sometimes I actually crave some of the not-so-badly-hated stuff to eat it with scientific curiousity, cataloguing my bodies response, and then I won’t touch it for years again. Had that with the raisins in muesli my boyfriend loves. I don’t like the soggy thingy that happens if you but dried fruit in milk.

    Concerning the screenstuff I have the opposite problem, though. We have a rather old TV, it’s called a CRT monitor I think? Anyway, it has a glass pane. And if anything reflects in there – which is basically always at a certain light level – I will not watch, because it drives me bonkers. With the computer I don’t really care about the lights around. The light sensitivity I have (especially since my optical nerves were inflamed twice in the last few years) can strike there, then, but then I’ll dim down the monitors as far as possible. This one can’t be dimmed that far, sadly …

    My biggest sensory sensitivity, however, is if someone in the general vicinity snorts up their snot. I will gag. I have ended friendships over this because I had to supress the urge to vomit all the time. Just the idea makes me nauseous as I type.

    1. It’s funny that so often books will bring up sensory sensitivities to loud noises but rarely talk about sensitivities to gross or annoying noises, like chewing or coughing or breathing. Things don’t have to be loud to qualify as a trigger. This seems to get overlooked a lot.

      It’s interesting that your taste sensitivities sound contextual (coffee bad, coffee sweets good – sour bad, sweet and sour good) rather than based solely on the underlying tastes.

      1. Yes! That is an often overlooked point. Certain types of repetitive noises will have me close to wanting to kill someone, while others actually seem to help me concentrate, because they block other distractions.

        My taste issues are pretty legendary in my family, when I tried to explain it to my mom once, I told her that trying to eat ‘unfriendly’ food was like trying to force myself to eat dog poo, or soap. She understood then, but I think your raw chicken example is a much more polite example, and still a perfect description! 🙂

      2. Or certain things don’t have to be quieter to be not a trigger. I love the sound of coonhounds baying, which according to most NTs is a horrible noise—yet my cats, much as I love them, can sometimes send me just about up the wall with their “quiet” little mews that feel like I’m being screamed at.

  20. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. Thank you so much for this. I think it is really hard for people to understand what it is like to have sensory issues unless they themselves have them. You have laid it out so clearly here. Fantastic!

  21. I am really trying to understand this because I have an 8 year old daughter that has real, raw difficulty with loud noises. She can’t go to a pep rallies at school, or a school chorus or band concerts, loud music in class, hates fire truck sirens, etc…she covers her ears and cries. I am trying to understand why–to me, its not overly loud, but to here it really is. I think she just has really, really sensitive hearing, I mean she can hear things that I can’t hear, (ceiling fan turning-she says”can you hear the air”)..took me a while to figure that one out…etc

    1. It likely really does sound louder to her, to the point of being painful. A firetruck siren too close up gives me an instant stabbing pain right between my eyes – like the worst kind of “ice cream headache”. It’s just unbearable.

      Sensitive hearing is one way to think of it, though I think it’s more of a filtering problem. Our brains don’t filter and dampen sounds in the same way that typical brains do. And yes, it’s totally possible hear the air of a ceiling fan. 🙂 Also, certain kinds of lights can be amazingly loud and annoying to the point of feeling nauseating.

    2. Two childhood memories that stand out: One, my parents bought one of those ultrasonic pest repellers. It was in the Southeast corner of the house. I could hear it all the way out to the sidewalk heading Northwest on our half-acre lot, and it caused genuine pain and even nausea. My parents apparently truly never could hear it and could never understand why I kept unplugging it and trying to hide it in the bottom of the laundry pile—they thought I was trying to encourage the mice to become pets. Two, I remember once asking my dad to investigate a sound that was bothering me. I followed the noise all the way down the hall. He couldn’t hear it at all until right on top of it. It turned out to be a darkling beetle trapped in a plastic grocery bag and kicking.

      1. I’m actually starting to wonder if this could explain the “risky” behaviour some autistic kids engage in. Their parents freak out when they run off into the street, but the kid might be able to hear cars from much further off. So where an NT thinks about the possibility of a car coming round the corner and hitting their kid before they realise the car is even there (they need to SEE it), the kid knows there’s no cars around because he can HEAR it. Just a thought, though, and not really safe to act on. But it might be an interesting explanation.

      2. You make a great point here about how kids with sensory sensitivities can have seemingly inexplicable behavior that actually has very real, concrete origins,

        I think it’s hard for NTs to imagine what it’s like to have such sensitive sensory receptors.

  22. My 2 yr old son has sensory aversions esp based on texture of things from sand to grass to foods that are mushy or jello. He had been a poor eater which frustrated me and I only recently learnt that he has sensory aversion and that I need to accept that and be patient with him as he makes his choices on what’s acceptable for him to eat or touch.

    Thank u for your research and post and look forward to the next ones.

    1. You’re welcome! Texture is a really common area of sensitivities, especially when it comes to foods. One think you might try is presenting him with foods in different formats. If he doesn’t like a vegetable cooked, he might like it raw or even cooked just a little (or vice versa). It’s great that you’re letting him take the lead on making his own choices. That will create a sense of security for him that’s so important.

  23. Thank you so much for sharing this! It has helped me understand my son’s extreme anxiety about trying new foods. Please, can you give me some advice about how to help him find healthy things to eat? Or should I just stick to the one fruit (apples) and one veggie (corn, which really isn’t a veggie) that he will eat? Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    1. I think it’s okay to do both – let him eat lots of the limited number of healthy foods he likes and also give him the option to try things in a really low pressure way. For example, offering him a small taste of something you’re eating and telling him that if he likes it, you’ll make enough for him to share next time. That way he doesn’t have the pressure of having to eat an entire serving of a new food right away. He taste yours and then go right on eating the meal he’s comfortable with. It may take time and lots of asking but I would just keep it casual and never express either praise or disappointment when he does or doesn’t try something. The funny thing about praise is that it can make autistic kids as uncomfortable as disappointment.

      I think all kids go through weird eating phases, even the ones without sensitivities. For a while, my daughter would only eat vegetables that were “baby” vegetables – baby corn, baby carrots. I had to tell her that I was making baby peas or baby green beans to get her to eat them and often she saw right through that ploy. Then it was the chicken nugget phase and the beef and broccoli without the beef phase. As long as your son is getting enough nutrition, I think reducing his anxiety around food is an important goal and if trying new things creates a lot of anxiety, it may not be the best goal for him right now.

  24. So well written & easily understood by the average person. 🙂 I’m mom to a 6 yr old dx ASD, and I need sooo many fam & friends to read this!!! Maybe then they’ll lay off about me bringing meals wherever we go.
    Gonna be following 🙂

  25. At work the other day I came into an office and there was very loud music playing contrasted with the normal intercom music out in the work environment. We had all come in there for a meeting and it was almost painful to go from regular speaking over the intercom to listening to this music, even though the music wasn’t essentially ‘bad’ or as loud as a nightclub etc etc… It was just the contrast that was so difficult to deal with. I feel the same way sometimes when I hear an extremely contrasting ringtone on someone else’s phone… It’s like a bright light in a dark room, but with sound – it puts all my defenses up and I want to get away from it. OTOH : when my daughter cried as a newborn I did not have that problem, my dogs barking loudly do not set my teeth on edge and I have very little problem with actual loud voices, only ‘loud’ artificial noise – tv, radio, phones etc… I think it is the ‘non-real’ modulation pattern?

    1. I’ve had that too! Ive found that for me the speakers can make a difference- -some have a low or high frequency noise they make independant of whatever they are playing. So I often find softer volumes more pleasant, because that other noise either goes away, or at least gets quieter.

  26. Thank you so much for putting this into words! I have always had an issue with oatmeal—I can’t swallow it, try as I may. My own child has an extreme aversion to crunchy foods. This post gave me some great words to use when I try to help other people understand that he’s not being stubborn, he really CANNOT eat those things! I have to tell you–my biggest sensory issue is actually visual. It’s naturally occurring patterns. Not all of them, but particularly cracked mud (OMG I just gagged typing it!), spores on the backs of leaves, sectioned worms, and (big one) fish scales. Ok, I honestly feel like I need a shower now! Glad to see that other people struggle with this! Helps knowing I”m not just weird. 🙂

    1. I’m so glad you found this helpful. The next part in the series addresses some of the things that people commonly say to or about kids with sensitivities and some counter, uh, viewpoints.

      That’s interesting that you have visual sensitivities. There’s a word that I think applies to what you describe but I’m reluctant to put it here because googling it will bring up triggery photos.

  27. Thank you so much for this insightful article. I think a lot of people sensitivities it’s just that they are not nearly as “in touch” with them as others. As for me, I will NEVER wear a turtleneck sweater. Ever. It makes me feel like I am being choked. It’s not just a preference but an actual physical discomfort that I can almost feel while I am typing this. Thank you so much for your explanation. I am hopeful that will help me with some clients that I work with!

  28. Cynthia, thanks SO much for the excellent analogy of the raw chicken. Thanks, also, for helping parents and therapists, and others, understand that their child or partner is not being resistant or defiant, but rather reacting to the atypical sensory processes they are experiencing.

    1. I’m glad it’s helpful! I think it’s hard to understand how intense the reaction to a sensory sensitivity can be if you’ve never experienced it so hopefully analogies help us to close the gap a bit.

  29. I agree – I DISLIKE most fish – and DISLIKE prawns for example – IF I never ate another one then I’d be perfectly happy BUT if I was extremely hungry and had very little other option then fine – I’ll eat the fish or the prawns … BUT – IF you put a slice of ripe fresh paw-paw in front of me – no can do! 😦 … it will just NOT go down and stay down! 😦 … dry it out into ‘fruit leather’ and I’m happy to eat it… puree it and add it to a tropical fruit juice mix – fine too BUT can’t be eaten as is 😦 … avocado has a similar effect on me! 😦 … I can no more handle eating avocado that I can handle eating margarine out of the tub with a spoon – ick! 😦

    1. These are great examples because a lot of parents seem to miss the idea that what form a food is in often matters a lot. There’s often a big difference in texture between raw or fresh or cooked or dried or pureed, etc.

  30. This is a perfect explanation of sensory aversion – wish I had this to help me when I was a child and when my son was small – I totally understood why he wouldn’t/couldn’t try certain things but it was so hard trying to get other family members to understand.

  31. My son is very sensory sensitive, he will not eat chicken, drink milk, or eat any texture like mashed potatoes, or jello this is a great posting for people that just don’t understand sensory sensitivity.

  32. Finally I have a name for what I have experienced all my life. I have never been able to eat certain foods because of their texture making me physically gag. I even gag on foods I love the taste of, just because of the texture, like mandrin oranges and cantaloupe I love the taste of, but the squishiness is just unbearable. I am also sensitive to the grainy texture of beans, the squeaky texture of peppers and onions, and the slimy texture of tomatoes.

  33. Mixed textures were a thing for me. When I was a child, food had to be in compartments, and I would often eat either only one food in a day/meal, or only things with similar textures. Eventually being able to eat things with a range of tectures made me happy, but at times I have to go back to having everything separate.

    1. I’ve heard a lot people on the spectrum say that they prefer to eat one food at a time and can’t tolerate foods on their plate touching or getting mixed together so you’re in good company on this. 🙂

  34. With me, it is certain sounds; barking dogs, screaming kids and fireworks. It isn’t a preference I can change. I have heard someone say “she doesn’t like dogs”. The thing is that I could be around a dog that had been de-barked. I can watch fireworks and children on TV. I have endured much ridicule and shame from others over this. Fortunately, this is not the case as much anymore.

  35. I am not a picky eater by nature, and I never had a texture problem with food in general-outside of jello or flan. But recently I get repulsed by surprising foods, like chicken, breads, hamburger, and other foods I used to really enjoy. The biggest surprise was scrambled eggs; I made really great scrambled eggs last year (that’s around when the texture sensitivity started become noticeably problematic), and I couldn’t eat them because the texture and smell felt wrong and gross in my mouth and I just couldn’t eat them or swallow, they felt so disgusting. It’s gotten worse recently, and has become disruptive to my daily life.I don’t even really know who to even approach with the problem.

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