Tag Archives: sensory sensitivities

At the Intersection of Gender and Autism – Part I

Note: This is my contribution to the Ultraviolet Voices anthology. It’s nearly 5000 words long, so I’m going to serialize it here over the next 3 weeks.  

At five, I wanted to be a boy. I don’t know what I thought being a boy meant. Maybe I thought it meant playing outside in the summer, shirtless and barefoot. Maybe I thought it meant not wearing dresses.

Dresses were all scratchy lace trim and tight elastic sleeves. Stiff patent leather shoes pinched my sensitive feet. Perfume tickled my nose. Tights made my legs itch and had maddening seams at the toes.

Too young to understand sensory sensitivities, I followed my instincts. While other girls favored frilly clothes, I gravitated toward the soft comfort of cotton shirts and worn corduroys.

Somehow, comfort got mixed up with gender in my head. For decades, “dressing like a girl” meant being uncomfortable. And so began a lifelong tension between being female and being autistic.


For a lengthy stretch of adulthood, I had an entire section of my closet that could best be described as aspirational. Pants suits. Dressy blouses. Pumps and sandals. Skirts, bought and worn once for a special occasion. Dresses, bought and worn never, before being spirited off to the thrift store.

I preferred ripped jeans and running shoes, hoodies and baggy t-shirts. Comfortable and comforting, just as they had been in childhood.

Continue reading At the Intersection of Gender and Autism – Part I

Changing Seasons and Sensory Sensitivities

These past few weeks I’ve had a sensory comfort zone the size of a postage stamp. There are a few things playing into my increase in sensory sensitivities* and one of them is definitely the change of seasons. Transitioning from summer to winter or vice versa is surprisingly demanding.

I think the biggest factor is the constant sensory adaptation. During the winter and summer, the days are pretty consistent from one to the next. It might be uncomfortably hot or cold, but at least my body knows what to expect each day and dressing appropriately doesn’t require a lot of forethought.

Spring and fall, on the other hand, are filled with unpredictable days. Yesterday was t-shirt weather. Today I have on sweats and a thermal shirt. Three days ago I left all of the windows open overnight because it was uncomfortably warm in the house. This morning I dashed out of bed to close the kitchen window, which was open two inches and letting a cold draft in.

With each temperature fluctuation, I find my body struggling to adapt. Too hot. Too cold. Over dressed. Underdressed. It’s hard to find that sweet spot–a consistent, comfortable environmental and body temperature. For the average person, this probably isn’t a big deal. I imagine things like dressing in layers and putting on or taking off clothing as needed is a good solution.

The problem with that strategy is that thanks to wonky interoception I often don’t notice when I’m too hot or too cold until it reaches a level of mild to moderate physical distress. At that point, doing something about it requires not just taking off or putting on a layer, but lowering or raising my body temperature to a comfortable level again. Simply putting on a sweater isn’t a complete solution to whole-body shivering. Continue reading Changing Seasons and Sensory Sensitivities

Taking the SPD Checklist

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. . .

I’ve written quite a bit about atypical sensory processing, so I’m going to get right to taking this week’s test.

Taking the Test

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.

Sensory Sensitivities: Understanding Triggers

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


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.  Continue reading Sensory Sensitivities: Understanding Triggers

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


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.  Continue reading The Difference Between a Sensory Sensitivity and Disliking Something

Sensory Sensitivities and Atypical Sensory Processing

This is the first in a series of posts about autistic sensory processing and sensory sensitivities.  Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4


I once had a t-shirt that I really wanted to like. It was a souvenir from a trip to Hawaii. The color, the material, the fit, the design–all perfect. It would have been my favorite new shirt, except for one thing.

It had a tiny thread in the collar that scratched my neck. A thread so small that I couldn’t see it. I’d cut out the offending tag and all of the visible stitching holding the tag in place, but that one little thread refused to go.

So I decided that I was going to get used to it. I was going to pretend that evil remnant of plastic thread didn’t exist. If it was too small to see, surely I could ignore it.

I tried. I really did.

I put the shirt into my summer t-shirt rotation and wore it at least once a week. The material got softer with each washing, which only made me want to love it more. It was one of the most comfortable shirts I owned. It would have been that most elusive of things–the perfect shirt–except for that microscopic thread.

I developed seriously mixed feelings about the shirt. I was determined not to let the thread win. It became A Thing. Some days I would wear it all day, doggedly ignoring how the thread jabbed at the back of my neck when I moved this way or that way. Other days I’d only make it to early afternoon before tossing the shirt in the laundry and changing–with a sigh of relief–into a more comfortable shirt. One with the tag cut cleanly out.

This went on for years. I wore the shirt in spite of how it made my neck itch and burn, in spite of the way it made me unconsciously pull at my collar all day long. I wore it right up until the day I admitted to myself that I was never going to get used to that thread. Putting my Hawaii shirt in the donation bag felt like a defeat. A thread–so small it was invisible–had gotten the better of me.  Continue reading Sensory Sensitivities and Atypical Sensory Processing

Beyond The Talk: What Else Autistic Girls Need to Know About Puberty

This was originally posted at a group blog that I’m part of: We Are Like Your Child. It primarily addresses parents of young autistics, but I’m reposting here because I thought other autistic adults might have helpful tips to add or their own wishlist of things they’d known about puberty.

One request: if you talk about anything traumatic, please reference it obliquely. There are some younger readers here now and I could see others finding this post in a search for autism and puberty or adolescence.


When it came to puberty, my parents did what many parents in the seventies did: they gave me a book about puberty written especially for girls. It was a slim cranberry hardback with an ambiguous title like “Everything is Changing.”

I was a voracious reader, so I would curl up in my beanbag and scour the pages for clues to the mysterious changes that were on the horizon. I think I had many of the same fears, anxieties and curiosities about puberty as my friends had. Certainly my body went through the same changes that other girls experienced. However, I think there are some areas where girls on the spectrum would benefit from additional information or guidance. That’s what I’m going to focus on in this post.

Many of the issues I want to touch on also apply to boys. I’m specifically addressing the issue of puberty in girls because I was once a girl and I raised a daughter. Girls are my wheelhouse. If you’re looking for information about boys, I hope you can adapt some of the ideas below but, honestly, boys are a mystery to me.


In addition to talking to your autistic daughter about all of the things parents normally cover when talking about puberty, consider discussing the following when you feel the timing and circumstances are right:  Continue reading Beyond The Talk: What Else Autistic Girls Need to Know About Puberty