The Variability of the Autistic Sensory System
“Ouch, can you not squeeze my hand so tight?”
“Oh, sorry. Is this better?”
“Yes. It’s like you were suddenly pinching me or something before.”
“I was actually squeezing your hand with the same pressure you told me you liked before. I think it might be you in this case.”
This is not the first time this has happened. My sensory system varies based on many factors, including the environment, what happened that day, my energetic level, and my current interior landscape of emotions and thoughts.
A hand squeeze of the same pressure will literally feel more intense at some moments than others.
I’ve found this variability to be a hallmark characteristic of autism.
Autistics love things to be clear. We love understanding. We would LOVE it if we knew exactly how our sensory systems would respond every single time in every single environment. If we knew exactly what we could and couldn’t tolerate. If we knew the exact amount of something that would put us over the edge.
But it is not that simple.
One time I was having a heated debate with a friend on a subject I deeply cared about. During that debate, someone had turned on the bathroom fan. I normally cannot stand the bathroom fan. However, due to my mind being focused on the subject at hand, I didn’t even notice the fan until someone else pointed it out.
In contrast, as I am lying in bed and trying to go to sleep, I can hear even the tiniest whir of a machine and feel like I’m going mad.
Some people like to explain it with spoon theory. The idea is that we only have so much capacity or energy to deal with things in everyday life. We are given a certain amount of “spoons.” Once those spoons are used up, so is our energy. This is usually when our sensory systems are especially sensitive because we no longer have the energy to tolerate or ignore things.
For myself, I’ve found the most impactful is the interior landscape of emotions and thoughts.
What do I mean by that?
How I am currently feeling and thinking dramatically impacts the sensitivity of my sensory system.
For example, I was hanging out in the airport waiting for my flight. I was two hours early and there weren’t many people in the terminal, so I found a quiet area and sat down to write an essay. After about 30 minutes, I realized I didn’t even have my noise-canceling headphones on. This is a rarity for me, and I was shocked I didn’t need them.
I later went to the check-in counter to ask a question about my flight, and the attendant said they would need to switch my flights. As my heart began to pump more, I started to notice the sound around me more. I went to the gate of my new flight, where the new attendant informed me that the ticket they just gave me wasn’t valid and they may not be able to get me on this flight.
As I stood there waiting for them to sort things out, I began to hear everything. I eventually stopped and put on my noise canceling headphones.
This is an example of the overall stress in my body alerting my nervous system and my sensory system therefor becoming more sensitive.
Another example of the impact of my interior landscape is my job. I am an art therapist and I typically spend 3-5 hrs a day with my clients. While I love interacting with my clients, it is an emotionally demanding job (you can read more about why in my essay Being a Therapist is Emotionally Demanding). By the end of the day, I am mentally and emotionally drained. My sensory system is extremely sensitive, and I often crave the silence of my empty home. I don’t want any extra stimuli.
There are also more acute examples, such as if I was recently emotionally upset by an argument with someone, I am far more sensitive to touch.
To a person unfamiliar with autism, these different reactions could seem confusing, or ever contradictory. I used to fear people would think I was hypocritical, because one minute something would bother me and the next it wouldn’t (I even wrote a whole essay about it called The Fear of Being a Hypocritical Autistic).
Now that I understand it better, I know I’m not “crazy.” I can see the factors influencing my sensory system and understand. While this doesn’t always mean I can predict the future, it at least helps me to know what is happening and why.
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