I think the most tangible impact of autism is on the sensory system. Humans technically have more than 5 senses, but for the sake of this essay we’re going to limit the sensory system to the primary 5 that people are familiar with: visual, auditory, smell, taste, and touch.
Before we dive in though, I’d like to explain WHY the sensory system is impacted by autism. Current theories about autism surmise that an autistic brain fires more frequently, rapidly, and in conjunction with other neural pathways than neurotypical brains. The result is a brain that takes in more information and then processes that information rapidly and in conjunction with multiple other pathways. This impacts the sensitivity (or intensity) of the sensory system.
Second, the constant firing of an autistic mind causes the nervous system to be in a constant state of alert. In this hyper-aroused state, the sensory system is attuned to take in more information. I like to use the example of when you wake up in the middle of the night because you heard something. There’s so much adrenaline pumping through your body that you listen for the tiniest pin drop. This is an activated nervous system.
As a result of an activated nervous system, an autistic person is taking in a greater volume of sensory information than a neurotypical person. A neurotypical mind will also be able to discriminate sensory input based on what’s important. For example, it may tune out that humming machine in the background because that is not what is relevant. In contrast, an autistic person will likely hear that humming machine VERY loudly.
Another key point here is that the amount and intensity of sensory information does not remain constant. Autistic sensory systems vary depending on the environment, the energetic capacity of the person, the emotional and mental state of the person, and other factors. For example, if I am fixated on a special interest (like writing essays like this one), my brain is so focused that I miss a lot of sensory cues. Sometimes my legs even fall asleep without me realizing until I am done writing.
In contrast, if I am at the end of a long day and have low energetic capacity, my sensory system is EXTREMELY sensitive. The light is extra bright and it is much harder to tolerate ambient noises.
All people experience these variances in their sensory system, but they are particularly pronounced in autistic people.
I also like to note that the difference in autistic’s sensory systems can be a positive thing as well. For example, some clothes may feel EXTRA soft, a pleasant smell can instantly calm us, or an upbeat song can shift our mood into joy. I like to point these positives out because it can be easy to fixate on difficulties of autism. In reality, there are a range of impacts.
Here are some examples of how autism impacts the five senses:
Extra sensitive to bright, direct light
Example: Difficulty driving at night with headlights
Enjoying environments that provide a lot of visual stimulation
Example: Enjoying nature or a cozy home with lots of beloved items
Difficulty discerning human voices
Example: Difficulty hearing voices in a crowded restaurant or needing subtitles while watching a movie
Enjoying replaying a specific set of songs
Difficulty with chemical smells
Examples: exhaust, perfume, air fresheners, etc.
Ability to tell immediately when something is off
Example: Able to tell that the milk has gone bad
More sensitive to pain
Example: Digestive pain can feel more intense
Strong preferences in the texture and fit of clothing
Example: A beloved hoodie can feel divine
Limited food preferences due to texture and taste
Example: Disliking tapioca pudding because of the texture
Ability to discern food tastes well
Example: Really enjoying a particular meal because of the food combinations
Another key point to know about autism and the sensory system is that the impact does not typically reduce with time or therapeutic techniques. For example, exposure therapy does not reduce how sensitive a person is to certain sounds. As autistics, it's important we know which parts of ourselves to work with and which parts of ourselves we need to accept and make accommodations.
For the sensory system, it’s all about acceptance and accommodation. The more we can limit our exposure to difficult sensory experiences and provide accommodations for ourselves, the better we will do overall.
Here are some examples:
Avoiding driving at night, using Uber/Lyft instead
Only wear clothes that are comfortable
Use noise-canceling headphones
Travel with extra dark sunglasses in case you need them
Immediately leave places that have chemical smells that induce headaches
As we make accommodations for our unique sensory systems, we experience less and less of the challenges. We can then focus more and more on the positive aspects. We can even intentionally enhance the positives by having sensory baskets (literally a basket full of things that delights your senses) or planning sensory experiences, such as going hiking.
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