All or Nothing: the Autistic Sensory Experience
Autism is largely a difference in perception.
As autistics, we perceive the world differently than NT’s do, because humans perceive the world through the sensory input we get. The autistic sensory experience is very different from that of NT’s. That is, we get a lot more of it.
We Lack a Filter Matrix
Time for a little quick science.
The human brain relies on the senses, but it decides what information it wants from them. For instance, only a certain percentage of what you “see” comes from your optic nerves, and the rest is your brain filling in the blanks. That’s why you can look both ways on a familiar road and see no traffic, but as soon as you pull out, there’s a car right on top of you. Your brain “saw” what it expected, like a web browser pulling up a cached version of a website.
The typical human brain can and will pick and choose what sensory input it wants to acknowledge. It decides this information is relevant and that information is irrelevant, and it ignores the irrelevant.
The autistic brain doesn’t do this. Our brains don’t filter out anything, so we get ALL the sensory input ALL the time. Light, sound, smell, touch, taste – our sensory experience is one of constant bombardment. Is it any wonder that we get overwhelmed?
Autistic vs. NT Real Life Examples
I’ve used these examples to explain my experience to NT people. Feel free to use them yourself if they resonate with you.
I am always aware of the touch of my clothes – naturally, anything uncomfortable, scratchy, binding, etc. is unbearable and tags are out of the question! Most NT’s never think about the touch of their clothes unless something brings their attention to it.
Similarly, I’m always aware of the sound of an air conditioner or the slight flickering of a fluorescent light, both of which most NT’s tune out without thinking. I can’t tune them out, I have to consciously ignore them as much as possible.
The list goes on: traffic outside, windchimes, the way my pen feels against paper, seams in my socks (aargh!), perfumes/colognes, conversation across the room, somebody’s phone vibrating loudly on their desk, etc., etc., ad nauseam.
Here’s a practical example I’ve used with my NT friends. Standing outside, we both looked across the street to a gas station sign. They saw the sign – what they were intending to look at. I saw the tree on our side of the street, the play of light and shadow on the ground as that tree moved in the wind, the guy-wire across the street, the flapping flags along the gas station driveway, AND the sign. I took in everything at once, while my NT friends only saw what they were looking for.
It’s no secret that autistic people often seem “zoned out”. What we actually do is learn to “shut off” one or more senses for a while to give our brains a break. It’s kind of the opposite of stimming, which also helps us regulate our sensory experience. We stim when we need more of some kind of input, and we shut off senses when we need less.
This “shutting off” isn’t just a way that we cope with overwhelm, although that’s common. We also do it when we get into a flow state, when we’re absorbed in a special interest, or when we’re concentrating on something. Once we’ve gotten to this point, we may not hear people speak to us, we might not notice people standing in front of us, and if you touch us, we’ll probably hit the ceiling.
How Do We Cope?
So how do autistic people cope with this constant barrage of sensory input? As I said, we shut off some senses sometimes, and we stim at other times. Sensory deprivation can be helpful; dark, quiet chill-out rooms with limited furnishings are nice. Personally, I love my weighted blanket, although I’m not sure if I should call it sensory deprivation or sensory input.
When we can’t manage to balance it all out – that is, if we’re prevented from stimming or can’t shut down or can’t find a place to chill out – we get overwhelmed and we melt down. And just so we’re clear, no autistic person of any age wants to have a meltdown. They’re painful, they’re exhausting, and they’re humiliating. We never do them on purpose.
Controlling Sensory Input
This is a coping method that gives us real agency. Because we take in so much sensory input, we seek to control as much of it as we can.
We’re not “picky eaters”; we know what textures and tastes make us feel good and we want those. That’s why we get on kicks of “samefoods” that we’ll eat for days or weeks. I honestly didn’t know that was a thing until I found the autistic community, but I’ve been doing it my whole life.
We aren’t “obsessed with” a certain movie, tv show, or song; we know that it brings us comfort, because we know it by heart or the chords hit us just right. Our playlists, stimmy shows, and stimmy movies give us back a feeling of control and routine that day-to-day life in the NT world takes away from us. It helps us calm down and feel safe.
We aren’t “being impossible” when we refuse to wear clothes made of Bad Feel fabric or with scratchy tags; we’re exercising our right to be comfortable in our own bodies. We have to touch a lot of things we don’t like out in the world – maybe it’s coins, or paper, or wet sponges, or something else – we deserve to be comfortable in our clothing. As an adult, everything I own is Good Feels – soft and cozy and stimmable – and I manage to dress appropriately for work, dressy occasions, and anything else I have to do.
The autistic sensory experience is characterized by overwhelm and anxiety. We do what we have to in order to keep ourselves calm and on an even keel.
Do you agree with my explanations? What do you do to handle sensory overload? Have you gotten the NT’s in your life to understand and help you? What’s your best tip for sensory issues and/or avoiding meltdowns?