While atypical sensory filtering is related to sensory sensitivities, not all unfiltered sensory data will trigger sensitivities. Remember the sounds I described hearing as I’m typing this? I’m not especially sensitive to any of them. I hear them and it’s hard to tune them out, but I don’t have a biological stress reaction to them. They’re just there and over the years I’ve grown used to having a lot of irrelevant aural data constantly pinging around in my brain.
In fact, I didn’t know until a couple of years ago that other people don’t hear all of those distinct ambient sounds when they’re engaged in an activity.
I suppose what’s happening in this case is my sensory gating is failing, letting the irrelevant sounds in. They get routed to an area of my brain that says, “oh, right, traffic, dog, sirens, rain, typing, closer traffic, harder rain, actually two dogs, footsteps upstairs” and on and on.
What should happen when I hear those repetitive background noises is something called habituation. The first time the dog down the hall barks, my filtering system might kick it upstairs to my decision making brain and say, “hey boss, is this something we need to worry about?” The decision making region would analyze the situation, decide that the dog is neither a threat nor any of my business, and say, “nope, ignore that from now on.” The filtering system would then flag that gate for closing, eventually tuning out the repetitive barking until I stopped noticing it.
Because that doesn’t seem to happen reliably, my conscious brain gets tasked with repeatedly ruling out these sounds as unimportant. That’s distracting, but it’s not unbearable.
What is unbearable is a TV playing nearby when I’m trying to fall asleep or the sensation of moving air from the fan when I’m sitting at my desk or the feel of anything gooey on my fingers when I’m cooking. Those are all things that trigger sensory sensitivities for me. I need to do something about them or my body starts physically reacting in a bad way. Anxiety ramps up. My tolerance for other stressors plummets. If a sensory sensitivity goes unrelieved long enough, I’ll end up in shutdown.
Reacting to Sensory Sensitivities
Everyone reacts differently to sensory triggers. Some people–including me–internalize their reactions. I get irritated, agitated, and eventually withdraw in sensory self-defense. Others react outwardly by crying, screaming, running away, covering their ears or eyes, or gagging. Often the final stage of both types of reactions is a full-on meltdown.
Because we’re having a natural reaction to an atypical stimuli, these reactions can look irrational. Often, onlookers will say things like:
“You’ll get used to it.”
“It’s not a big deal.”
“Jimmy got over his fear of it and now he likes it.”
“It can’t actually hurt you.”
“You have to learn to deal with it at some point.”
All you have to do is replace “it” with “eating raw chicken” in those sentences to see why they sound ridiculous to someone who is having an intense reaction to an atypical sensory processing event.
Those kinds of statements can also be damaging to an autistic person’s self-esteem and self-concept in the long run. Let’s look at them one at a time to see why.
“You’ll get used to it.” Remember my t-shirt fiasco? I was certain I would get used to that thread if I just stuck with it long enough. When I didn’t, I felt like a failure, like there was something wrong with me. Now I realize that if I haven’t gotten used to the tags in my shirts after 45 years, it’s probably not going to happen. Ever.
Some sensory sensitivities change and lessen over time. For example, as a kid I ate a limited number of foods. My parents never made a big deal out it, instead serving me the things that I was willing to eat. As an adult I have a varied diet. It’s not something I forced myself to habituate to, it happened gradually over time.
It’s important to remember that the reverse can happen as well. Sensory sensitivities can intensify as we grow older. We may develop new sensitivities. And some are just there for life.
“It’s not a big deal.” It feels like a big deal to the person with the sensory sensitivity. Being told that it’s not can make them doubt their own experience of their body. This can lead to “stuffing”–a method of dealing with unwanted feelings or bodily sensations by pushing them down deep inside and denying they exist–and other unhealthy coping strategies.
“Jimmy got over his fear of it and now he likes it.” This is assuming that a sensory sensitivity is actually a preference and if you’ve stuck with me this far, you already know what’s wrong with treating a sensitivity as a preference or an irrational fear. I’m not afraid of my t-shirt or lace collars or sticky substances.
In children, the reaction to being asked (or worse, forced) to do something that triggers a sensitivity is fear. Why? Because that child knows that the outcome is going to be intensely uncomfortable and possibly even make them ill. The result is panic, mentally, emotionally and physically.
Also, Jimmy is his own person and every autistic person has different types and levels of atypical sensory processing. Just because Jimmy is autistic and he decided at six-years-old that he loves spaghetti doesn’t mean that will be the case for other autistic individuals. In fact, I doubt you could find two autistic people with the exact same set of sensory sensitivities.
“It can’t actually hurt you.” Again, this isn’t taking into account the biological reactions that sensory sensitivities trigger. Sensory overload drains our already limited coping resources, taking energy away from other essential activities of daily living like self-care, work, school or parenting. The sort of chronic stress associated with being repeatedly exposed to sensory triggers can lead to serious negative health effects. And repeatedly being exposed to a sensory trigger in the name of desensitization can result in long term trauma or PTSD. Finally, some sensory sensitivities are physically painful and literally do hurt.
“You have to learn to deal with it at some point.” Will it surprise you if I say this is true? But not in the way this statement is usually intended. It’s true in the sense that learning how to adapt to your sensitivities makes life so much better.
How can you eat a balanced diet while excluding foods that you’re sensitive to? How can you dress appropriately for work or school without triggering your tactile sensitivities? What is the best solution to feeling overwhelmed by the sounds of the grocery store or the lights in the classroom?
When we flip this statement around, it becomes not “how can we fix you?” but “how can we adapt the environment to be less triggering?” That should be the goal when it comes to learning how to deal with our sensory sensitivities.
The final part in this series, Sensory Diet, will be posted next week.