[Image Description: bright morning sun shining over some tram tracks that appear dark]
Sensory sensitivities are common in many autistic people. We can experience the common senses very differently to neurotypical people. Autistic people can have either hypersensitivity (where senses are over-sensitive) or hyposensitivity (where senses are under-sensitive). These differences can be present in any or all of sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell; and for the same person some senses can be oversensitive while others are under-sensitive.
Light sensitivity is the most common of the sight sensitivities. Others include a strong sense of either revulsion or appreciation for certain colours, patterns etc. It can be difficult to tell whether certain sight sensitivities are due to autism or due to other eye conditions such as short-sightedness, migraines, or Irlen’s Syndrome.
Light oversensitivity can mean the sun is always too bright, even when it’s behind a cloud, and some autistic people wear sunglasses regardless of the weather to counter this. Artificial lighting can also trigger light oversensitivity, particularly fluorescent lighting which flickers at a rate too high for most humans to notice – but some autistic people can. Flashing lights may also be a trigger, such as Christmas lights on houses during winter.
Sensory sensitivities often do not make sense to those who don’t experience them, which is a major issue in the understanding and acceptance of autistic people. Some sight sensitivities, such as being repulsed by stripy patterns, for example, seem to have no overt cause and may be dismissed as ‘silly’. However, to the individual, they can produce intense emotional reactions, or even be experienced as physical pain.
Noise sensitivity is perhaps the most well-known of autistic sensory sensitivities. The modern image of an autistic person usually includes noise-cancelling headphones, in media that is both good representation and bad representation. Loud noises or consistent interfering noises, can cause a lot of distress for autistic people. It can become difficult to focus, and culminate in sensory overload and a meltdown or shutdown.
Some autistic people, however, seek out certain sounds that may be comforting to them. Music is naturally a common one, but the tinkling of chimes or click of buttons could also be comforting. Unfortunately, autistic people can also have a strong revulsion to some sounds, like hammering – and two autistic people may find the same sound comforting for one, and repulsive to the other, leading to conflict.
Some autistic people may hate being touched by other people, or may hate certain fabrics. Autistic people with strong touch sensitivities regarding certain fabrics may find it very difficult to buy new clothes, instead wearing the same old things over and over again until they fall apart. Other autistic people have textures they love to touch and find comforting, either to wear or just to have close by to rub when they’re feeling stressed.
Weighted blankets are popular among autistic people who crave a heavy touch, as the pressure can be enjoyable. For other autistic people, though, they may find the opposite and dislike pressure. Sensory sensitivities are an area which can vary so greatly from person to person that the only real way to accommodate most of them for an autistic person is to ask that specific individual.
Taste sensitivities can be extreme in autistic people, presenting as ‘fussy eating’ as only certain foods may be deemed acceptable. This is made worse by texture and touch also entering into it, as foods can have different textures too. An autistic person with extreme taste oversensitivity may refuse to eat anything other than a small list of foods – even if the alternative is eating nothing at all.
Other autistic people with taste under-sensitivity may crave foods with lots of flavours as they struggle to detect the taste otherwise. This means that two autistic people with opposite taste needs may never be able to share a meal. Taste-oversensitive autistic people may not be able to eat spicy food, and may find something others classify as ‘not that spicy’ actually extremely hot and painful.
These sensitivities can lead to disordered eating if they are ignored or not accommodated, leading to health impacts, so it is vitally important that they are respected.
Some autistic people can’t stand strong smells at all. Perfume and deodorants are awful and make the world painful as you can never predict where you’ll smell them. Cigarette smoke is another one that can be painful and distressing – and vaping is not much better, and can often be worse as it covers whole pavements and is inescapable. Some autistic people can’t even be in the same room as someone who has recently been smoking.
On the other hand, there are some smells that autistic people may greatly enjoy, and some autistic people who will seek out nice smells. The smell of fruit, vanilla or lavender may be very calming for one autistic person, but distressingly strong for another. Some autistic people who smoke may actually enjoy that smell, however I personally am unable to understand that at all.
I have light oversensitivity, I wear sunglasses unless it is night or very cloudy. I also get migraines, and don’t like bright white screens – I write these posts with a green background – or indeed staring at screens too long. I don’t want to upgrade my 1st gen Kindle as the new ones are backlit and mine isn’t. I strongly dislike Christmas, as our neighbours across the road put up flashing lights that distress me.
Noise is another one. I have noise-cancelling headphones but despite them being rather expensive they still don’t block out enough. I can’t sleep in a room with other people because their breathing disturbs me. I have a visceral hatred of construction noises due to past experiences. I can’t stand the sound of other people chewing, especially if I’m not eating myself at the same time.
Touch isn’t so bad for me, I don’t mind hugs though I prefer them if both parties are wearing long sleeves rather than skin-to-skin contact – partly because I was a germaphobe even before the pandemic. When I was younger, though, I had to put on gloves after showering because I couldn’t stand the feel of my recently-wet fingers touching my other fingers! I don’t use a weighted blanket as it doesn’t seem necessary.
I have extreme taste sensitivities and that has been really damaging in the past. If I go to events with a set menu, I usually eat nothing at all. Pot-luck dinners and other food-sharing social activities are impossible as I just can’t partake. I tried becoming vegetarian but instead of substituting things, I just stopped eating more than 3 times a week until I became sick due to malnutrition. I hate and feel awkward at food-based events and try to avoid them where possible.
Bhutan is the only country in the world where smoking is completely illegal. I know this random fact because I looked into where I could move to get away from the smell; that’s how bad my sensitivity is to it. Unfortunately, I think I would rather struggle with the language – and food! – in Bhutan. I also dislike strong perfumes and deodorants but not so viscerally, and I actually like the smell of fruit a lot.