I was stumped for a title on this one. The questions all center around various ways we experience the world around us, but they’re about as loosely related as you can get and still say there’s a theme.
1. Is the fascination with certain topics usually a life-long one, persistent over many years, or subject to change ?
2. What are your special interests and on what scale do you engage in them?
3. What effect does alcohol have on you, particularly on your executive function or stimming?
4. I’m wondering if sitting all crossed-up in chairs is an ASD ‘thing.’ (i.e. do you do this?)
5. Do you have some very specific memories? Such as “ah-ha!” moments that you can draw up much more clearly than most memories, involving not only a picture but feelings, perhaps sounds and smells etc. as well and the image is VERY clear whereas most memories are a thought.
6. Do you sometimes attribute feelings to inanimate objects? Do you feel like certain objects ‘want to’ be interacted with or will feel bad if you don’t use them? Do you explain some of your quirks in this way, for example thinking that street furniture or certain textures want to be touched/felt, rather than you want to touch them? Or does it feel this way but you translate it when talking to others?
7. Does arousal influence you in an autism-specific way? As in: Do you overload easily when aroused? Does arousal influence, for example, your verbal reasoning skills than you feel would be “normal”? Do you stim when aroused? (for clarification: the questioner described this question as being “personal” so I think they are referring to sexual arousal, but answer in whatever way is comfortable for you)
8. Do you have difficulty with sequencing – working out the order in which you need to do things – for example if you were preparing an unfamiliar meal with several elements, would you have difficulty balancing them all without explicit planning and measurement in advance? Do you often realise you’ve done things in the wrong order or in a very inefficient way?
9. Is your primary fantasy ‘stopping’? In school, I used to fantasize about spontaneously dropping unconscious. As an adult, I fantasize about leaving the social system entirely. more details here
10. We often hear about autistic children wandering off. Did you wander? Did you “disappear” frequently to the point that was upsetting to your family (or teachers?) Why did you wander off? What do you remember about it? Now that you are an adult do you still wander? Do you disappear (perhaps during sensory overload) without telling anyone that you need to remove yourself at this time? more details here
This week’s test is more of an inventory of traits than a quantitative test. The SPD checklist is intended to help identify areas of atypical sensory processing, including hyposensitivity, hypersensitivity and sensory seeking.
Sensory processing disorder (SPD) is a stand alone diagnosis, however, there is substantial overlap between SPD and the atypical sensory processing that autistic people experience. In fact, now that sensory sensitivities are included in the DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for autism, we may start to see fewer kids getting diagnosed with SPD plus an alphabet soup of other conditions. Because the odds are really high that a kid with concurrent diagnoses of SPD, ADHD, and ODD is really just an autistic kid in disguise. But that’s a rant for another day. . .
There several online versions of the SPD Checklist. The one I’m linking to for this post has a couple of nice features: it’s (mostly) worded as an adult checklist, it’s printable so you can complete it on paper, and the links at the top of the page allow you to filter the questions by type, in the event that you want to focus on just one area of sensory processing.
To get started, go to the SPD Checklist webpage. This a “paper and pencil test”, so your options are: print it out and sharpen your pencil, create a tally sheet to add up your scores, or copy/paste into a word processing application.
Edited to add: Anna very kindly made us a spreadsheet that totals up the scores for each section: SPD Checklist (recommend that you save it to your computer or make a copy before using it)
To take the test, read each item and numerically score it as follows:
0 – Never (not at all)
1 – Rarely (a little)
2 – Sometimes (moderately)
3 – Often (quite a lot)
4 – Always (severe)
I assigned words to the scale to help me better understand how to use the numerical scores. The instructions also say that you can score an item as P for “previously experienced but no longer present” however there is no explanation of to interpret P numerically.
Interpreting the Results
The checklist has 138 total items, for a total possible score ranging from 0 to 552. There are no guidelines available for interpreting the numeric scores and I think that’s because this checklist is meant to be a qualitative guide to a person’s sensory processing rather than an indication of a diagnostic threshold. Of course, I still couldn’t resist adding up my numerical scores.
The items on the checklist are divided into 8 categories:
General Modulation (scoring range: 0 – 36): The 9 items in this category are broad and were some of the hardest to answer because they felt so vague. I scored 22.
Over-Responsiveness (0 – 100): The 25 items here cover hypersensitivity to sensory stimulus, with a heavy emphasis on tactile and auditory sensitivities. I scored a 61, with the highest scores on tactile and general environmental items and the lowest on vestibular and taste items. No surprise there–I’m tactile defensive, easily overloaded by stimulating environments and a vestibular/proprioceptive/taste sensory seeker.
Under-Responsiveness (0 – 36): These 9 items cover hyposensitivity, mostly in the interoceptive category. I scored 13, with high scores on the interoceptive items and low scores on the rest.
Sensory Seeking (0 – 80): The 20 items in this category measure tendencies to intentionally seek out strong sensory experiences. I scored 48 + 1 P (knuckle cracking, which I did habitually as a teenager and have stopped doing). Most of my high scoring items are in the proprioceptive, vestibular and taste categories.
Sensory Discrimination (0-104): These 26 items relate to our ability to filter sensory information. I scored 42. This feels like the weakest area of the checklist. I know from experience that I have significant difficulty filtering sensory information but the items in this section didn’t accurately capture the difficulties I have. Difficulty licking an ice cream cone neatly? Not something I encounter on a daily basis.
Sensory Based Motor Abilities (0 -80): The 20 items in this category are related to fine and gross motor skills and would probably be more accurately described as such. I scored 41. Most of my high scores were in the area of fine motor skills.
Social and Emotional (0 – 88): I would classify this entire category as secondary traits because I think they’re more a product of having sensory sensitivities than “symptoms” of SPD. Also, this is where the line between autism and SPD becomes really fuzzy. There isn’t a single item among the 22 here that isn’t also an autistic trait or is strongly present in many autistic people. I scored 48, mostly due to high scores on the social and resistance to change items.
Internal Regulation (0 -28): This is another weak section. Difficulties with interoception are common in people with atypical sensory processing and the 7 items here were clearly written by someone who doesn’t experience interoceptive weirdness. I scored 17, with moderate scores on everything, simply because the questions are worded so vaguely. More questions with more specific traits would create a better picture of a respondent’s interoceptive issues. For example, “do you not realize that you need to use the bathroom if you are engaged in an interesting activity” or “do you sometimes forget to eat until you are feeling weak, dizzy or nauseous from hunger” would be much easier to answer than the current “under sensitive or over sensitive” wording.
Overall score (0 – 552): For what it’s worth, I scored 292 out of a possible 552. The overall score seems useless because, like an IQ score, it’s an aggregate of a set of disparate subscores.
The best approach is probably to look at the categories we score especially high or low on, and then drill down into the subsets of high/low scores within each category. For example, within the over responsiveness, under responsiveness and sensory seeking categories, there were clear patterns in my answers that identify which areas I’m hypo- and hypersensitive in.
This test also suffers at times from imprecise wording, making some of the questions hard to answer. I had no idea how to score “hates to be barefoot or hates to wear shoes/socks” because I prefer being barefoot and generally dislike shoes and socks, expect in situations where being barefoot would be painful. So is that 4 for disliking shoes and socks or a 0 for loving to be barefoot or what? Seems like a completely useless question. Same for “love to touch and be touched, have to touch everything.” Anyone who is simultaneously tactile seeking and tactile defensive knows that those are three completely different things.
The Bottom Line
The SPD checklist would benefit from the input of people who experience sensory sensitivities. A few of the questions felt unanswerable and some of the others could use refinement. However, completing the checklist can help someone with atypical sensory processing identify which areas they have the most challenges in. For those new to the concept of atypical sensory processing, it can also be a good introduction to the potential ways that atypical sensory processing affects our daily lives.
Note: Take a Test Tuesday will be on hiatus for a while after today. I’m moving and not sure how long it will take for me to get settled in. Also, I’ve run out of test ideas again. If anyone has ideas for other tests that might be, let me know in the comments and I’ll start rebuilding a queue.
Those of you who didn’t like the flashing photos in the last two tests will be relieved to know that this week’s test is a series of multiple choice questions. The Personality and Emotion test at Test My Brain looks at three areas:
how frequently you experience negative emotions like fear, worry, anger, frustration, and self-consciousness
how sensory seeking you are
how much you enjoy social interaction
Their working hypothesis is that people who score higher on the second two will score lower on the first. In other words, if you enjoy sensory and/or social aspects of life, you are less likely to experience high levels of negative emotions. I like the inclusion of sensory elements in this test. I’m not “social seeking” but I’m highly sensory seeking. In fact, much of what I find enjoyable about life falls under the heading of sensory input. It’s nice to see that acknowledged as valid, alongside the more traditionally valued social interaction.
I want to talk some more about the individual sections when I share my scores, so let’s take the test first.
TAKING THE TEST
The test takes 10 to 15 minutes. To start, go to testmybrain.org and click on the Go! button next to the “Personality and Emotion” test.
You’ll be asked to make your browser window large. I kept mine the size I normally use and it worked fine. The next screen is a simplified informed consent form. You’ll be told what the research is being used for and asked to consent (agree). The next screen collects some anonymous demographic information. Continue reading Taking the Personality and Emotion Test→
Thank you to everyone who shared their stop sign photos over the past week. We have a couple dozen so far. I’m going to post them next week so there’s still time to share yours! Don’t be shy.
From the Unfiltered Aspie File
Last Friday The Scientist and I went to buy dog food. We couldn’t find the usual brand so we were walking around the store browsing when I spotted an employee standing in a doorway near the back. I asked him about the brand I was looking for. He said it had been recalled and we talked about alternative brands. He seemed a little skittish as he said he would show me the brands he’d mentioned but I dismissed it as the usual sort of effect I have on strangers.
When we got out in the parking lot, The Scientist said, “Did you realize that the guy you asked about the dog food was standing in the doorway to the employee bathroom?”
“Uh . . . no?”
“He was drying his hands.”
All I saw was a doorway and a few cartons stacked against the wall, which led me to assume it was a storeroom. No wonder the guy looked so nervous.
For the past few months I’ve been living across from a train station. It’s a small historic depot that still has freight and light rail commuter trains coming through all day and night. When we looked at the apartment, the salesperson cautioned us that the trains are required to blow their whistles as they come through the intersection at the corner. She warned they’d be louder in the front of the building.
We ended up at the back of the complex–for reasons that have nothing to do with the trains–but I still hear the whistles plenty loud. I can’t say I mind much. They give a rhythm to the day. And if it’s a freight train and it’s moving fast enough, I can hear the rumble of the engines–two or three usually–and the long line of cars they’re pulling.
Predictably, stereotypically, I’ve always been drawn to trains. The model train set I had as a kid. The big empty echoy boxcars that used to park behind my dad’s workplace. Trains I spied from the backseat, passing in front of our parked car and alongside highways. My first real train ride, through the countryside of a place as foreign and unreal as the new life I’d suddenly stepped into. Then, years later, living in the Southwest, where you can see an entire train at once, a hundred or more cars long, racing beside you on the highway, stretched out across a mesa, end-to-end, small against the infinite sky.
But it wasn’t until recently, standing beside the tracks, that I figured out the attraction for me: patterns and sounds. The resonance of the freight trains. Standing next to the tracks, feeling the rumble resonating in my chest is one of my new favorite sensory treats. That and watching the cars pass. Tankers. Box cars. Flatbeds. Grain cars. If you just stare at one point, you get car-space-car-space-car-space, over and over and over, at regular intervals,six of this kind, ten of that, almost never just one of anything.
The summer before seventh grade I went to an amusement park with my cousins. Until that day, my amusement park experience had been limited to kiddie rides. My parents weren’t roller-coaster-riding types and I guess they assumed I wasn’t either.
So there I was, first time in a real amusement park with real rides and roller coasters and everything and I was . . . terrified. I felt sick to my stomach just looking at the rides. But my cousins, who had been to the park many times, grabbed my hands and made a beeline straight for a ride that looked like this:
It was called Strawberry Fields and as we waited for it to start, songs from “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band” blared from the speakers overhead. My memory of that moment is clear as if it happened yesterday. I can hear the scratchy version of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, feel the greasy vinyl of the safety bar beneath my sweaty palms and practically taste my fear as my heart galloped in my chest.
And then we started to move, slowly at first, gaining speed, a little more and a little more until the wind was whipping my hair across my face and the three of us were pressed in a bone-crunching heap against the outside of the car and I was screaming right along with everyone else through 90 seconds of pure, unadulterated joy.
When the ride stopped all I could think was, “holy shit, let’s do that again!” And again and again and again.
I’d discovered one of my favorite sensory experiences: going fast. Blindingly fast. Mind-numbingly fast. The speed was exhilarating. I rode everything in the park. The faster it went, the more I liked it. Spinning, falling, dipping, swinging–I had no idea why I liked the intense physical sensations that the rides created, but I did. When I went back to the park on a seventh grade field trip, I spent the morning riding a roller coaster, jumping off and running around to the entrance to get right back in line.
Sensory Seeking =/= Stimming?
Now that I know about sensory seeking behavior, my sudden intense love of amusement park rides makes sense. Autistic people are often sensory seeking in a big way. We have a strong need for intense sensory input and will deliberately seek out or create sensory experiences to satisfy that need.
Sensory seeking is often described as a way to either stimulate an understimulated nervous system or calm an overstimulated system. Which sounds a lot like the typical definition of autistic stimming.
That raises the question: is sensory seeking behavior a form of stimming? There is a lot of overlap between the two, but I don’t think they’re identical. Stimming provides sensory input so I think we can say that all stimming is sensory seeking. But stimming is generally repetitive, which isn’t always true of sensory seeking.
Going on a roller coaster once or twice? Probably sensory seeking. Going on a roller coaster twenty times in a row? Could be stimming.
Honestly, I have no idea. Feel free to weigh in with your own theory, opinion or confusion in the comments.
The Wild Ones
Much of my childhood play was sensory seeking in disguise. Some of my favorite activities as a kid:
Going as fast as I could down big hills on my bike, roller skates or sled
Jumping or diving off the high board
Hanging upside down and doing somersaults on the monkey bars
Jumping on the bed (broke my jaw doing this)
Bouncing on a trampoline or Hippity Hop
Sit ‘n spin!
Climbing trees and hanging upside down from the branches or jumping to the ground
Running into the padded gymnasium wall and bouncing off
Zipping my arms into my coat and playing crash dummies with a friend (this never ended welll)
Lying underneath my beanbag chair while watching TV
Swinging as high as I could on the swings then flying off
These are not especially “girly” pastimes. They’ll get you branded a tomboy and a handful. If you’re a boy, you’ll be seen as wild and unruly, maybe you’ll get an ADHD diagnosis.
As a teenager I took up martial arts, primarily for the self-defense aspect of it, but I discovered that I liked the contact that sparring involves. Getting hit while padded up with gear creates a very tangible kind of physical feedback. So does pounding a heavy bag or kicking a hand target hundreds of times in a row.
Although that may sound masochistic, it’s not. I don’t seek out pain. Let’s be clear about that. Although I often engage in activities that have a risk of injury and pain, what I’m looking for is a benign physical sensation–one of pressure or contact or movement–not pain.
There is sometimes a belief that people who engage in sensory seeking activities like headbanging, slamming into objects or biting themselves are doing it because pain is the desired outcome and I don’t think that’s always true. It may be true for some, but for others, those activities don’t hurt, either due to pain hyposensitivity or an ability to regulate the level of contact in a way that keeps it below our pain threshold.
64 Flavors of Sensory Seeking
While I’m primarily a proprioceptive and vestibular sensory seeker, there other types of sensory input that I’m strongly drawn to:
touching surfaces and objects
the feeling of sound resonating in my chest (Tibetan singing bowl, trains, explosions in IMAX movies, loud music)
the exhaustion after a hard workout
the smell of fire
being immersed/floating in water
Of course, that’s me. Everyone’s sensory seeking preferences are different. Some common examples by category:
Tactile: seeking touch from others; touching objects, textures or surfaces (either certain types or everything)
Visual: seeking visual patterns, moving objects, specific colors or shapes
Oral: seeking food or nonfood objects to taste, chew or suck on; seeking specific sensations like crunchy, spicy, or minty
Olfactory: seeking specific preferred smells; smelling everything
Vestibular: spinning, rocking, being upside down; seeking specific head or body positions; jumping from heights; seeking intense speed or movement
Auditory: seeking loud, repetitive or specific types of noises; making sounds because they’re pleasing
Interoceptive: seeking bodily sensations like hunger, thirst, urgency to use the bathroom, fatigue
Proprioceptive: physical contact, crashing into things, stretching, pressure, sound resonance
What drives to seek out our preferred sensory inputs? I haven’t been able to find much scientific background, so I have only my personal experiences to share:
Regulatory: As a kid, I think my intense sensory seeking behavior was a way of soothing my overloaded brain. There were many many days when I couldn’t wait to get home from school and ride my bike to the top of the highest hill in the neighborhood. The hard climb up and brain rattling ride down were the only way I knew to soothe the angry anxious restless feelings that built up during the day.
As an adult, I’m better at regulating myself in more typical ways. Still, after a long day in the city I like to wedge my body into a seat on the train so my legs are pressed up tight against the seat in front of me. I do the same thing on airplanes and long car rides. The pressure calms me and helps downregulate my sensory overload.
I’ve read that stimming and sensory seeking behavior can be stimulating (hence the term stimming) but I’m rarely in need of any added sensory stimulation. I usually have more than I can handle.
Connection: Sensory input reminds me that I have a corporeal form. It connects my mind to my body and my body to my environment in tangible ways. Without touch, pressure and movement, I can easily get disconnected from my physical self.
Organization: Some types of sensory input help me feel more organized and integrated. At the end of the day, when I’m watching TV, putting my weighted blanket over my legs keeps me from turning into a squirmy mess on the couch. Without the added weight on my legs, I’ll change positions every five minutes trying to get comfortable because my body feels so disorganized and physically confused by the end of the day.
Physical dissociation and disorganization are things I’ve only recently realized that I experience. I was going to write about them to help clarify the “why’s” of my sensory seeking but I wrote so much that it will have to be a separate post.
Not Growing Out of This One Either
I’ve always had strong sensory-seeking tendencies. I think I always will. This isn’t a bad thing. It’s actually one of the things I like about being autistic. I have the ability to experience certain sensations in ways that most people don’t.
I like the intensity and immediacy. I like the pleasure I can find in mundane everyday things like the rumble of a passing train or the feel of a matte bookcover. It’s not exactly a superpower, but does give the world around me a vivid tangible realness that I can tap into whenever I need to reconnect myself with my self.