The Autistic Lens


Punk Writes

Sensory Overload and Sensory Seeking

Updated: Dec 5, 2019

In another group there was a post about sensory overload, and I kind of realized something.

Everything is about the base 5 senses we were taught in school:

Sight, Sound, Smell, Taste, and Touch.

Sight? Too many blinking lights, or bright lights can overload someone, or someone could seek that out and it calm them.

Sound? Loud noises, sudden noises, those can overstimulate someone, or in cases of PTSD and related, cause traumatic response. There's also people who seek specific sounds, or songs, or even commercials, parts of songs, due to a physical happy feeling they get (related to synesthesia, more on that below and another post soon!), or because it calms them. Do you enjoy white noise machines? Guess what, that's sensory seeking!

Smell! That's a VERY common one, not just for autistics either! How many people LOVE scented candles? That's sensory seeking! But some people can become overwhelmed from too many smells, or specific ones, or be hyper-aware of one when you barely notice it! That can cause meltdowns or overload too.

Taste is a more obvious one, as most people can relate to enjoying the taste of one thing, but hating others. But, with autistics, the things they hate can overload them as well, or they might sensory seek and ONLY eat those things.

Touch is a big one for me personally. There's the common misconception that autistics don't like being hugged or touched. Well, some of us actually do! I sensory seek for physical stimulation (specific fabrics, velvety things, etc) and I also get overloaded from them too! Starchy clothing, tags in shirts that feel like a cactus is on my back, or my worst ones: When I get a haircut and I'm covered with the tiny hairs, or if I try and brush my teeth (I get physical pain in my whole body for that) or the feeling of "sticky", like if you use syrup or honey and get it on your hands; those things send me into instant overload and meltdown! But some people seek out touch, kinetic sand, thinking putty, slime, even running water, can be related.

All of these when combined can be related to various things too, for a quick example, eating actually combines all of them! If an autistic person doesn't like eating something, it could be any one or a combination of these things as to why, or it might be none of them.

Problem is, sensory can happen from all of those, and some others a lot of people don't know about.

We have our sense of balance, equilibrioception, which senses the speed you're moving in a specific direction, how fast you're accelerating, and gravity as well. When it comes to sensory overload with that, a good example would be if you're on a cruise ship. When I've been on them I was able to feel the ship rocking back and forth and it threw me off big time. There's also roller coasters, which are kind of a sensory seeking thing but also a sensory overload for me as well; but some people who are autistic, and this is apparently a common one, will love the feeling of spinning around in circles. That's sensory stimulation to your sense of balance.

There's Thermoception; the sense of heat, and the absence of it, or rather the sense of feeling cold. For me specifically, I'm hypersensitive to heat and cold; if it's above 73F I start getting overwhelmed, but conversely if it's under 66F I also get overwhelmed, and it affects me physically as well, due to poor circulation in my fingers and toes. Some people who are sensory seeking in that regard could sometimes seek out incredibly hot rooms, love hot days (provided it's a dry heat, humidity is related to touch actually), or if they love the cold they might go outside in nothing but a bathing suit when it snows and similar things. I actually knew someone who couldn't actually feel cold or heat in general due to sensory under sensitivity and would often go out when it was 30 out in shorts and a t-shirt to a local playground to go on the swings.

We also have Proprioception, a kinesthetic sense; the sense of self-movement and how we know where our body parts are without seeing them. There are some people who actually are under-sensitive in this, or don't have it at all, so if they can't see their arms for example, they might get overwhelmed or worried, or sometimes even be unable to control body parts without them in their direct line of sight.

Pain is actually also a sense, nociception, which signals nerve damage or damage to skin or anything else. This is a common one from people I know and myself included, and a family member of mine. My family member is under-sensitive to pain, to the point where they could step on something sharp and not notice until they're bleeding, whereas for me I'm oversensitive to pain, and it actually can cause me to have meltdowns or go into sensory overload, or even invoke a trauma response. For me, what would register as a 3 on a scale of 1-10 for someone whos "pain neurotypical", would register as a 5 all the way up to an 8. I once knew a person in Highschool who couldn't feel pain at all as well, and that's also something that can be dangerous since pain is actually the bodies first "alarm" system that something is wrong.

Believe it or not, and I only learned of this in humans while doing my original video, there's something known as Magnetoception, or magnetoreception, in humans possibly. It's the ability to detect what direction you're facing based on the earth's magnetic field. There's tentative research right now that suggests the Rhodopsin in the human eye, a light-sensitive receptor protein involved in sight that responds particularly well to blue light, can facilitate magnetoception in humans. (link to that in comments if you want to read more!)

One of the big ones that's only recently being talked about on a bigger scale with autistic people, is an "Internal Sense", or interoception. It's any sense that is normally coming from the inside of the body. This includes, but isn't limited to, hunger, thirst, the need to use the restroom, things having to do with your body regulating high blood sugar, the feeling of being bloated, being able to feel swallowing food or when things are coming back up the other way, even the perception of heart activity, or being aware of your heartbeat. You can be over or under-sensitive to all those when it comes to your internal sense, and my wife and I have actually realized we have difficulty knowing when we're hungry and or thirsty, and I myself am hypersensitive to "cardioception" which is the sense I mentioned of heart activity. I am ALWAYS aware of my heartbeat, and can almost always feel it, no matter what I do.

I'd like to say that's everything, but it barely begins to scratch the surface; those are only the senses related to specific sensory organs! Our "selves" also have chronoception, the ability to notice or know the passage of time. A sense of agency, which is the subjective feeling of having chosen a specific action (some conditions can actually lead to a loss of this sense, or even too much of it!). And also, a sense of "familiarity", which is also known as "Recognition Memory". This sense is responsible for deja vu or deja rev!

And what makes things even more interesting?

Every single sense I just mentioned?

Autistic people can have those senses mixed up, wires crossed, one thing causing another instead of what would neuro-typically happen.

This is when you get things like Synesthesia, when stimulation of one sense leads to involuntary stimulation of another. Tasting colors, hearing flavors, seeing sounds; the list goes on. There's 9 known types of it, but I'll go into that in another post. These are all things you should take into consideration when you're with an autistic person, or if you're autistic yourself too! True "Sensory Safe" days at theme parks and other places can't truly happen without taking into consideration literally ALL of these together, and it needs to be done with the advice and information from people who are #ActuallyAutistic, and not just once, we need to be kept on the project for updates, changes, alternatives! This goes in with my previous post, this is one of the biggest reasons you ask WHY something is happening, WHY someone is behaving some way or having some kind of response to something. You hear us, but you need to REALLY listen to us too!

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