A very common trait of all autistic spectrum disorders is to have hyper sensitive (or in some cases hypo sensitive) senses. Mine are most certainly hyper!
You may have noticed that some cinemas have “autism friendly” screenings, and you might be wondering what this means. Or if you’re a reader with AS, you might, like me, be wondering why the autism friendly screenings are only for kids’ films. Is it because, as adults, we have learned not to throw tantrums, so because we make the least noise, our needs get ignored?
For those who don’t know, “Autism friendly screenings” are those which have the volume turned down and the screen made less bright and less zoomed in, so that families can enjoy the film without being blinded and deafened! I haven’t been to an autism friendly screening, since I have only ever seen them advertised for kids’ films (and my favourite films are horrors and thrillers!), so anyone who has been to one, please tell me in the comments section what other adaptations were made.
We’d be able to make much more informed choices if we had disclaimers outside attractions with us in mind. A mere “contains loud bangs/screeches which some may find distressing”, or “contains strong odours”, will perfectly suffice, and will better enable us to make informed decisions on whether we enter attractions. Something so simple could save a lot of people from needless distress.
The debilitating impact of sensory overload for aspie adults varies between individuals. However, many of us need quiet time throughout the working day as well as at home, often to nurse excruciating headaches as well as to gather our thoughts and keep anxiety levels at bay. It also means that there are many places that we avoid going to because the sensory overload makes us think that we’ve died and gone to Hell! I don’t mean that we’re all hermits, I just mean that a lot of places would be far more accessible for us if they were less overpowering to the senses.
So, let’s see how sensory overload looks through each of the senses…
“Oh, what sensitive eyes you have!”
Besides the obvious annoyances such as blinding car headlights and bright supermarkets that give us piercing headaches, what else is overload to the aspie eyes?
Things that flutter, things that move too close to my face, and things that flash or move too fast. For instance, I despise moths and butterflies when they fly near my face, and I am terrified of birds, especially pigeons, because they flutter and they fly too close to me, and they swoop down out of nowhere! Oh, and don’t even get me started on the beaks and claws that they could use to gouge my eyes out with! OK, maybe the latter fear is just me and I can’t blame AS for it…
Many people will notice that I don’t find it easy to make eye contact with people. I am comfortable with it with some people, but when I, or other people with AS, don’t make eye contact, we’re not being rude, it’s just that to us, the intensity of eye contact makes it feels as though the other persons eyes are burning into us. We don’t use our eyes to listen, so please don’t make us make eye contact unnecessarily!
I also find that when I’m walking, especially in a place where there is a lot of people, I tend to look at the ground. This is because there is so much going on in front of me and in my peripheral vision, that it distracts me from focusing on putting one foot in front of the other without falling! All the traffic, pedestrians and general hustle and bustle is too much visual information at once, and I’m a hopeless multi tasker to the core of my being!
I’ve also found that ever since childhood, I could see tiny particles in the air, though not as much now. I didn’t know them as particles when I was a child, so I’d get anxious when I’d ask, “what are those tiny moving dots in the air?” and whoever I was asking would respond with, “what tiny dots?” If our eyes are sensitive enough to see tiny air particles, imagine how invasive bright lights and flashing images must be to our eyes!
Oh, what sensitive ears you have!
Sensitivity to sound is by far the most anxiety provoking of the senses for me as an individual. I have had to leave many events, social and professional, due to the excessive noise.
During a weekend away, I had to leave Sandcastle Waterpark in Blackpool earlier than my friends, even though I love water slides and rides, because the ear-piercing screeches of children, the humming of water pumps and, as if that wasn’t bad enough, the loud music, was just too excruciating! The hot air and putrid stench of chlorine also made me feel so poorly that I had to retreat to the hotel room!
I also went to another room to join other people in making banners for Leeds Pride whilst at the Leeds Queer Film Festival recently. I’m crap at art and went in there because I found the films to be too loud, too zoomed in and too bright. I was really impressed with the variety of activities that were available other than watching the films. I would therefore definitely class this as an autism friendly event, and I hope that they keep up the good work for their other screenings!
It’s a nightmare when I am trying to sleep in environments that are unfamiliar to me (especially when I’ve been lone working as a sleep-in staff member in previous jobs). Since I am not used to the sounds of the creaking floorboards, or the radiator, fridge or other appliances in someone else’s house, the sounds will be amplified and I will wonder if it’s normal, or if the noisy electrical appliances are an impending gas explosion and the creaky floorboards are a serial killer coming to murder me! Those of you who are prone to catastrophising like I am might identify with these thought processes. However, my hearing is much more finely tuned to the little sounds, thanks to the aspie in me!
So, if our hearing is finely tuned to the little sounds, imagine how the big ones are for us. Imagine, for example, the bane of my life… the fire alarm. I suppose it surpasses being burnt to death! However, the shrill ringing makes me go into panic mode so that all protocol goes out of my head and I just can’t think clearly. It serves its purpose in getting me as far away from a burning building as possible, but it is due to my anxiety around fire alarms in work places (where they are always particularly deafening), that I am not suited to jobs which require me to ensure that everyone else is out of the building. The best form of psychological torture, I find, is to have the panic inducing fire alarm, accompanied by the worry that there will be a fire that you haven’t discovered when you give the all clear, and that everyone will die because of you; or that you haven’t accounted for someone who is still inside burning to death!
One of the worst things in the world for me is the dreaded team meetings! It really is like falling into the depths of Hell and being engulfed by the chaos of banal chit chat and shrieking hyenas who talk over one another! The astonishing decibels reached by their high-pitched laughter and chatter make my head feel like it’s being blended through a mincer! This makes it impossible to decipher important information.
Mechanical noises are another pet hate of mine. Hoovering is left to someone else, or to the last minute, because I can’t bear the noise! I was once sent for an interview by a temping company at a warehouse which used sewing machines. I had no experience of using sewing machines, and thus no idea of just how loud they would be! I left feeling very distressed and overwhelmed. I told the recruitment worker just how loud the machines were, and they said that it wasn’t something that they had noticed, which shows how sensitive to it I, and other aspies, must be!
Oh, what a sensitive nose you have!
Smell is a close second to sound! It’s yet another reason why I am unsuited to careers involving odorous homes, cleaning, and odorous people! At a previous job that I was in, we had to encourage residents to clean the house, including the dreaded bathrooms, and if they didn’t, then we’d have to. As predicted, they often didn’t (yet they were still happy to shower and use the toilet in there! The mind boggles…) Cleaning the bathroom would fill me with such anxiety that I’d have heart palpitations and do lots of other jobs to ‘work up to it’! Even if there was no smell, I would often muddle up my senses, as is common in people with AS, and be heaving at the mere sight of sprinkled urine or skid marks! I always ensure to bleach my own toilet regularly, because otherwise the smell of toilet water is overpowering to me. I also use lemon or other fruit scented cleaning products when mopping the floor because I cannot tolerate the combined smell of damp and bleach!
Something that I also get so anxious about because I don’t know how to deal with it politely, is people who lack personal hygiene! Please don’t read this and think that I am being unkind. Far from it. I deeply sympathise with people who have such severe drug, alcohol or mental health problems that it affects their personal hygiene, or with anyone else who doesn’t have the means to wash. However, from a sensory perspective, I find this to be a significant problem when going outside of the house. When I was younger, I worked in an off licence. I was on the till and a lady came in wearing the same filthy clothes, long and brown finger nails, scrunched up greasy hair and flakes of dirty skin on her chest that she always wore. As you can imagine, she smelled equally as bad! I served her in the same polite and friendly manner that I served anyone else. After she left, the smell was still lingering, and it over powered me so much that I had to run to the toilet because I thought that I would be sick! My heaving does not reflect my feelings towards people in her unfortunate predicament (my emotional response to them is the polar opposite). It is, however, important to give that example to show non-AS readers that, if ever a person with AS (you may or may not know that they have it) shows a similar response, they are not being dramatic or spiteful, they are genuinely hyper sensitive to smell.
Oh, what sensitive mouth you have!
Many of you would call my taste in food ‘beige’! I will try most things, but I love simple foods such as beans on a jacket potato, plain bread, plain crackers, chips, bran flakes and tuna or chicken pasta with tinned tomatoes. Even slightly spicy foods burn my mouth, and I cannot stand foods that are strongly flavoured with herbs. There are two prime examples of this.
Firstly, I was eating at a Cuban restaurant once with a friend, and the dish that I ordered was delicious, but so spicy that I had to constantly drink water. It was not labelled on the menu as being spicy, so I got my friend to taste it, and he said that to him, there “wasn’t even the slightest kick to it”.
Another time, whilst eating in another restaurant with another friend, I saw an “all the greens” dish. Since I was trying to be healthy and lose weight, and since I love food such as broccoli and green beans, I decided to order it. A big mistake as it turned out! Since it was a healthy dish, they had massively overcompensated with lots of strong tasting herbs and seeds. I ended up leaving it and ordering a bowl of chips!
I tend to feel much more comfortable in small cafes where I know that a tuna and cheese panini or cottage cheese on a jacket potato will be precisely that- no fancy crap added in! Photos of each dish on menus would be a great help at times when us aspies decide to brave restaurants that serve food that is more exciting than a jacket potato or chips (that’d be most places, then!) If a dish is worded in such a way that I don’t know what the hell it is, and it turns out to be something as simple as a sausage sandwich (as has happened to me so many times), then this will cause me unnecessary anxiety about ordering something that I might not like.
Oh, what sensitive touch you have!
I have never understood the social niceties of hugging people who you don’t know, or introducing yourself with a hug and a kiss on both cheeks. Or even people who you have become platonic friends with who touch and grab you all the time! This is something that makes me feel uncomfortable. I also cannot stand being tickled! No, not in a ‘ticklish’ way. I mean that the sensation of being tickled is so uncomfortable to me that it is painful. Do not test me. You will regret it.
I also cannot bear to have my personal space invaded. I will always sit on the table in a café which is the furthest away from other people, and I always like to have a chair space between me and other people, as when people sit too close to me, it somehow makes me feel trapped.
When it comes to the sensory perception of touch in autistic spectrum disorders, this doesn’t just affect how we respond to touch or space in relation to other people. It also affects what clothes we wear and what food we eat. I do not like mashed potato for this reason. It tastes nice, but I cannot stand the sloppy texture which clings to every part of your mouth.
I also do not use nail files because the sensation of scraping my nails against it makes me cringe, and even touching the rough texture of it leaves me cold.
Believe it or not, I’m not as much of an ogre as this blog entry would lead you to believe! I’m always friendly and welcoming to anyone who I meet for the first time, and you wouldn’t know that I struggle with these things (well, some of them) unless I told you. The point of this blog entry wasn’t to make a pariah of myself or other people with AS. Rather, it was to show people that we process sensory information differently, and that just because our symptoms are not always visible, that doesn’t mean that we don’t have AS.
Also, if you see someone who is distressed by sensory stimuli, or if they tell a story of a time when they were distressed by disgusting toilets, bright lights, loud sirens or other sensory stimuli; please, for God’s sake, do not make throwaway remarks such as “get a grip!” or “wait until you have credit card bills to worry about”. This will make us feel even more isolated, and won’t make our hyper sensitivity magically go away!
I’ll finish on a very apt quote (I can’t remember who said it, so if anyone knows, please comment below) …
“Be kind always, for everyone is fighting a battle that you know nothing about”.