My Autism Late Diagnosis Group (LDG) met this morning after a fortnights break over Easter. The topic for information and discussion was sensory issues. Now I’ll admit I didn’t want to go to the group. My last experience on communication (of all topics) didn’t go well for me due to the lack of group interaction, and add in a touch of depression then I have all I need to feel justified opting out. However, I do need more autistic friends and I do need to make an effort to get them so after a bit of indecision on how to get there, I make it through the building door only a few minutes late.
I also think on a philosophical stance that there is an ethical requirement for me to utilise my local support services. If I have a right to be given an autistic support service by my community then I have a duty to make use of it. This is in my head though and can often be overruled by more emotional needs.
Back to the group meeting.
I don’t think I will go into too much depth on each of the areas we covered at this point because some of it I will have mentioned before and the stuff I haven’t, I think needs a more detailed unpacking than I can achieve currently. We covered eight senses which is two more than I had thought about and three on top of the standard school teaching (at least when I went to school). I am going to list the senses and perhaps give a few examples from my perspective but what I want to highlight is how upset I was when I came out of the discussion. More on that later. Another rather obvious point when you think about it, is that these senses can all be at play at the same time so it isn’t always easy to understand where some reactions or behaviours fit in. Also, autistics can be over sensitive to somethings and under sensitive to others. So sensory issue can be a rather complex world to understand.
So let’s start with the basics five senses.
Vision for me has always been an issue more from the viewpoint of constant headaches and migraines due to things being too bright. For instance I am writing this on my laptop but the background page is black and the text is grey. Increasing I have become aware of how painful strong contrasts are for me so driving at night in busy traffic tends to be avoided as an example.
Touch can be problematic. I don’t like unexpected light touches but a more deliberate heavy touch can be welcome though I might not be able to bear any touch. Clothing doesn’t tend to be too much of an issue but I don’t like scratchy wool and do prefer soft furry things (cotton and fleeces). I prefer to sleep under a heavy fleece though I hate getting hot so summer is awkward! I like tight fitting clothing though this might come under a different category.
Hearing is an issue for me. I talk in a soft voice I suspect because my voice seems so loud to me. I dislike random loud noises but I also dislike loud noises full stop. Multiple noise sources around me throws off my ability to concentrate.
I really don’t like artificial and/or over powering smells. I tend to hold my breath when I go through a shop selling cosmetics. I think there is a contrast thing coming into play here as well as the strength issue. Natural smells tend to have a number of components that blend to gether whereas I suspect artifical smells are more discrete in their combinations (a bit like digital and analogue smells I guess).
Taste is so tied up with smell that I find it hard to comment on but I notice I tend to prefer heavy textures like thick porridge over runny, madeira cake over like-sponge, ice-cream over cream.
Now for some less well known senses.
The vestibular sense refers to your sense of balance. Do you have problems standing on one leg? Perhaps you sometimes feel your world seems to physically shift and you need to grab something? I sometime get wobbly when I am walking up and down the stairs. I just need to grab onto the rails and wait until the “earthquake” stops. It can be rather unnerving.
Your proprioception sense is the sense of your own body in its environment. Do you have poor spatial awareness such as difficulty catching or kicking balls? Are you classified as clumsy? Do you find yourself bumping into things? A classic low proprioception sense I display is by bumping into doorframes. Another is kicking the frame of the bed when walking around it. I will often bump my head when I am working under something low even though I am fully aware that I am under something. Motion sickness can be a sign that your proceioception sense is out of kilter.
Interoception is a sense of what is going on inside your body. I display an under sensitivity on this when I loose track of the last time I ate or drank for example. I can sit in a cold envrironment and not realise that my core temperature is falling and I am verging on hypothermia. On the opposite side I am over sensitive to internal pain. I can feel pain in my joints even though medical tests indicate there is nothing happening. I know exactly where my liver transplant happened because I can feel the tightness of the internal scars and sometimes jabbing pains. I can feel food passing down my throat and know when it is getting stuck.
During the group discussion there were times when things jumped out at me. Someone said they tended not to eat until after dark which suggests that everyday stimulation from the environment drowns out they sense of hunger. Another commented on their constant need to touch other people, and it was suggested that touch was an important part of how that person communicated with others. I wondered if I was like that too. The times when I stood at the side of my parents bed wanting to be comforted but my presense wasn’t acknowledged. Seeing people hug each other and feeling left out. Being too scared or too awkward to ask for a hug. How peaceful I felt as a child when I lay on my Dad’s bare chest when we went to the beach.
Then there was a comment on wearing tight clothing. Some people wear tight clothing under other clothes because it helps their sense of spatial awareness. Does my love of tight clothing indicate that I am like this too? I have always prided myself on my sense of coordination but it seems that this was probably achieved through repetitive learning. The hours that I threw tennis balls back and forth as a kid. The challenges I would set myself to walk along the road without my glasses one (I am very short sighted). How I would pretend to be blind and walk around the house with my eyes closed.
I am saddened at the lengths I went to as a teenager to fit in with the world around me. And I am saddened at the world where I judged myself as being inadequate because I was clumsy (I was never as competent with a football as I was with a tennis ball). Unfortunately that inner critic still exists. As I get older and my covering up skills fade, I still berate myself for what I judge to be failings. Walking off a curb and misjudging the step down to the road results in a strong uncomfortable jolt to my body. “Don’t be so clumsy,” I tell myself. Similarly failing to keep my balance when I put my shorts on might result in an annoyance at not keeping up standards.
After this review though, I can say that I am happy I went to my LDG meeting. I took part in giving examples and because I did, I learnt that others also experience issues like hypersensitivity to internal pain (so I am not a hypercondriac after all). Yes I came out sad because I realised the lengths I went to as a teenager to fit in but I also now have an appreciation of the determination I applied in order to achieve my mask. I still have many things to work on (who doesn’t?) but the gaining of insight is a major step along the road of becoming happy with who I really am.