Asperger’s and sensory overload
Most people are probably aware many autistics suffer from sensory overload in some way, shape, or form. It seems to be common knowledge among most of the non-autistic people I've spoken to.
Alas, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, and as is so often the case the gap between the truth and what people believe is wide, deep, and occasionally difficult to bridge because of wilful ignorance.
I say this because the typical neurotypical view is one of projection. Most people dislike bright, noisy, and busy places, for instance, and they then conflate what they imagine our experience is with their own, and conclude it's merely a minor irritation, a fuss about nothing (and something we can "fix" with the "right mindset", to boot).
Autistic sensory overload
We all present differently, of course, but it's fair to say when an autistic is sensitive to sensory-overload, it means exactly that — it's overload and we have no way of controlling it.
I realise from the outside it can look like overreaction and even play-acting, but it's not. It's like screaming into a microphone and over-driving the input: the system can't cope, so the signals get mashed up and distorted.
Let's briefly take the five senses in turn.
Some autistics are particularly sensitive to smells, to the point an unpleasant (to them) smell is unbearable and can lead to retching, vomiting, and even meltdowns.
My own sense of smell seems to be broadly the same as a neurotypicals.
Taste is similar to smell, in that some autistics are highly sensitive to it and have what might seem to uneducated eyes to be an overreaction to them.
My sense of taste is depressed in that I much prefer strong flavours and find blandness faintly nauseating.
The few tastes I cannot abide — marzipan being one of them — are off the scale in unpleasantness. I don't think I'd quite vomit, but no guarantees, you know?
As I've mentioned before some Aspies are so physically sensitive they can’t bear to be touched by another, even to the extent where they can’t have sex.
Fortunately for me and the whole of woman-kind, I am not one of them.
But, aside from that extreme, my own touch-sensitivity is high.
I'm particularly sensitive to the texture of cloth and other materials against my skin — wool, for example, feels like sandpaper and is unbearable. If I take my shirt off and, say, lie back on the grass I can't stand it for more than a few minutes.
I like to be touched by others, but only if I know them. I don't like having my face touched by anyone.
As with many Aspies I'm extremely sensitive to bright light (which is why I almost always wear a cap with a brim on it, so I can keep my eyes in shadow. I'll typically wear sunglasses when I go outside, even when it's overcast and it might seem like overkill.
And flashing lights?
Let's not even go there. They do strange things to my brain, and I really do not like them.
For me (and perhaps most Aspies), sound is the big one.
Loud, unexpected noises can shock me into immobility, although it does depend on the quality of the sound and not just how loud it is.
So... (most) loud music, thunder, the crashing of waves and waterfalls, the barking of dogs and other animal noises don't bother me at all.
But loud motorcycles, road-drills, clattering cafeterias, unexpected rounds of applause, clicking pens, ticking clocks, and people talking can, depending on a number of factors, become overwhelming to the point I have to leave the room or otherwise remove myself from the situation.
In recent years I've taken to wearing either passive earplugs, headphones, or ear-buds to screen out the noise — this works incredibly well and makes airports, railway stations, malls, and other loud, busy places far more bearable.
And I can't stress this enough: sensory overwhelm is not a choice, or something we can "power through".
Most of the time it's manageable if for no other reason than we're used to it and can take steps to ameliorate the situation, especially when we're adults. Kids are more dependent on their parents, and, unfortunately, old-school thinking is often of the mind kids should simply bear it so they become inured to it.
But it's not like that.
No amount of exposure to sensory overload makes it any easier to deal with the next time around (if anything it can make it worse, because of the anxiety our apprehension of what's coming causes).
The most irritating thing from my point of view is so much of this is unnecessary. It doesn't take much to make buildings, public areas, and places of employment autism-friendly. And the same things making it easier on us also make it easier on neurotypicals — no one likes loud, bright, clattering, and busy places, I'm sure.
Awareness of this is spreading, to be sure, and it's not too long ago Oxford University banned clapping in favour of the silent applause of "jazz hands".
Sadly, the response to this from the knuckle-dragging window-lickers was a negative as it was predictable, with the initiative being blasted as "political correctness gone mad", and those in favour of it "Snowflakes".
Hmm. Not sure I'd warrant the title "Snowflake", but, hey, if that's what suits you.
To me it's basic common decency to avoid causing pain and sometimes distress to others simply by being somewhat more considerate in your actions (and Oxford University is a privately owned institution, and they are free to ban any behaviour they like on their own premises).
One thing we can take from this is we've a long way to go yet.
Jon McCulloch, The Evil Bald Genius
Author, speaker, business owner, and autism advocate