In preparation for Autism Awareness month next month, I figured I would dedicate this blog to one of the major obstacles of Autism–sensory processing. The five main senses: Smell, sight, taste, touch, and sound are also accompanied by the three lesser talked about senses which make up the vestibular system, proprioceptive system, and the interoceptive system. On top of the constant barrage of environmental input we can’t seem to tune out, we struggle to maintain a connection with what is going on inside our bodies as well. Clumsiness, lack of balance, and falls are all related to the functionality of the vestibular system, just as spinning, bumping into things, and lack of personal space are related to how well the proprioceptive systems are functioning. Those two senses both help the brain determine where we are in space in relation to other objects, which direction we are traveling and how fast, or what our orientation is whether we are upside down in a handstand or upright or laying flat. Without those systems we would not be able to maintain a standing position without wavering or falling down, navigating obstacles like stairs or corners, or activities like swimming, gymnastics, or diving. The last system, the interoceptive system, is responsible for alerts in your brain that tell you what your body needs like thirst, hunger, temperature, pain, and needing to use the restroom. This system also occurs in the part of the brain that is responsible for our emotional awareness. (If you want a more in depth look at those systems as well as the five major senses you can check out this website for more info! https://www.spdstar.org/basic/your-8-senses)
When the world is full of too much sensory information our brains need a way to try and process everything. That is where the stims come in. Stimming is one way for us to cope with the overwhelming sensory triggers we face daily and are usually directly related to which sensory system is being overwhelmed. Likewise, some of us are hyposensitive and are seeking out that missing sensory information which also leads to certain types of stimming and processing. Stims can be fidgets like hand flapping, tapping, touching certain textures or rubbing texture material against our skin, or spinning, or they can be things like screaming to regulate noise, putting different textured materials or non-edible items on our mouths to experience tastes or oral stimulation, chewing, biting, smelling different smells or completely avoiding any of the senses by pinching our noses, plugging our ears, or covering our eyes. In almost every case the stim is our non-verbal way of saying, “There is a sensory trigger bothering me” or ” I am lacking information from one of my senses.”
When our stims don’t help us regulate our sensory information, the brain usually goes into either a full out panic in search of input or completely overloads with information. This usually leads to a meltdown or a shutdown until the brain has a chance to reset, so to speak. For those of us with hypersensitivities the best course of action is to remove ourselves from the overwhelming environment and find a quiet, dim/dark, and sensory-friendly place to regroup and calm down. For those with hyposensitivities, the brain might cause us to react with unhealthy coping methods like head banging, biting, hitting, running into walls, or being excessively aggressive in the pursuit of sensory information. It would be helpful to make sure there are safe ways for people who need extra sensory feedback to get the information they need with things like chew necklaces, cushions with different textures seat pads, interactive learning centers with tactile and visual centers or strong scented aroma therapy oils. What works for one child may not work for another so patience and observation are the keys in learning a child’s triggers if they are not able to tell you. Remember though that those same children will grow up to be adults with sensory processing needs as well and while their needs may change with exposure to certain triggers, there are going to be adults with Autism who need the same patience and loving-kindness and consideration in regards to their sensory environment. Most sensory-friendly events are oriented for kids, but I am hopeful that more adult-oriented events and locations are going to be available with time.
So what are some triggers for people on the spectrum? The list is literally endless as we all have our own specific needs and triggers, but I have compiled a list below that features many of the most common ones, and triggers that I know specifically through my own experience. Feel free to comment any additional things you might struggle with or want people to know about! The goal of this list is to bring awareness and understanding about the types of sensory feedback that can be completely intolerable for people on the spectrum that others who don’t have a sensory processing issue might not have any idea is so difficult to cope with on a daily basis.
Sight: Fluorescent lights, bright lights (headlights at dusk, sunlight after being in a dimly lit room, flashlights, or spotlights), flashing lights, t.v. screens especially old ones with lower refresh rates, screens with bright back lights or low refresh rates
Smells: Places like the laundry aisle or a body lotion/perfume store where several strong smells all overlap, strong oils like peppermint or eucalyptus, cigarette smoke, candles with complex mixed scents, bleach, seafood, moth balls, rubber or plastics, cleaners or hair products, burnt food, strong food smells like bacon or broccoli, and pollen/flowers
Taste/food textures: Very soft foods like bananas, avocado, or pudding or on the reverse side excessively crunchy foods like chips, crackers, or veggies, foods with extreme tastes like spicy, sour, or bitter, foods that have conflicting textures like crunchy veggies on a soft bun, foods with too many tastes–often kids prefer bland or simple foods like goldfish or a burger made with only meat, bun, and one topping
Sounds: Sirens, alarms, hair dryers, air dryer in public restrooms, vacuums, blenders, microwaves, timers, loud music, dog bark, white noise, baby cries or screams, balloons popping, certain voices or pitches, loud motors, metal grinding, thunder, trains, drums, fireworks, or chewing noises
Touch: Tags on clothes, seams in socks or pants, too tight or too loose clothing, lotion or other oily or sticky substances on skin, certain pressures on skin, hair or pet hair on skin, touching course or rough textures or too soft of textures, hot water or high pressure water on skin like in the shower, too hot or too cold air on skin, humidity, touching others, transitioning between long pants and shorts in different seasons, or hair cuts