Senses Working Overtime – autism and sensory overload

I have to admit the whole issue of sensory overload has only come to my attention in recent years. The idea that an autistic child might find a particular classroom impossible to function in because the walls are too brightly coloured for example or find the combined sights and sounds of a fairground too much to cope with.

In trying to work out to what extent this had applied in my own life to date, I decided to go through each of the five senses and muse on the differences between simply not liking a sensation and the kind of crippling aversion that might affect the autistic.


SIGHT: When I read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time  (which I thoroughly recommend) one bit I didn’t identify with at all was when Aspie teenager Christopher Boone arrives at Paddington station for the first time only to find the visual onslaught of so many advertisements, shop hoardings and direction signs impossible to take in. I always loved that busy element of a London terminal – increased visual stimulus has never really been a problem for me, not least because I’m not obliged to put my focus on anything except signs pointing to the Underground.

HEARING: Now here I DO have an issue with overload, not least when two or more people are talking to me at the same time. Even when it is obvious that they are basically trying to make the same point, I will beg them to speak one at a time so that I don’t miss any important details. When this happens in a professional context I invite the most senior in rank to speak first – this shows that you are maintaining some respect for authority even in the midst of a meltdown/tantrum/whatever you want to call it.

“But that’s just normal” I hear you cry. Well according to my father, in one of our last conversations, the neurotypical bod can focus on just one voice and shut all other sounds out.

Extraneous noises aren’t always helpful either – I remember on train journeys to school asking my fellow commuters to please hold what they were going to say till we were out of the tunnel.

There is also the matter of intolerance to noise but again, that’s for another time.

TOUCH: No recollection of refusing to bring my hand into contact with anything on account of physical sensation but I know I’m not the only Aspie to have trouble wearing certain textures, fabrics etc, in my case, woolly jumpers. They prickle and sting. And that applies almost whatever I’ve worn underneath them. I remember when I was about five, a particularly uncomfortable Guernsey sweater from childhood that my mother had found in a sailors’ cast-off store in Cornwall. I kind of assumed discomfort came with the package and that I would just have to get used to it. I did for a while, particularly when my Sunday School teacher went “Oooh don’t you look smart” and gave me a little cuddle into the bargain. Learning the art of or even, in cases like this, the right to self-expression did not come easy but that’s another story. I got there in the end though and by the time I was at the latter end of primary school, was wearing only acrylic in terms of jumpers.

SMELL: But I’ll tell you what I run from and that’s the smell of mushrooms cooking. I’ve only willingly eaten them with the black bits turned away from my taste buds and swallowed them pretty quickly too. The smell of them frying is the worst. When I visit my cousin I can’t go into the kitchen on Sunday mornings purely because that’s the day she treats herself to fried mushroom sandwiches.

Not only put off by the taste but also the smell. Could this be an Aspie heightened senses thing?


TASTE: I identified even less with Christopher Boone’s refusal to eat foods of certain colours (Yellow and brown? I wonder why the author chose those – duuuh!) I was pretty picky about my food pre-teens but have no recollection of fussing about the colour with the exception of one time visiting grandparents when I had to be reassured that a pink sauce served with our dinner tasted like ketchup (which I rarely ate without in those early days). It didn’t look like it so I spat it out all the same and was duly reprimanded.

Some Aspie kids won’t eat certain foods because they can’t handle the texture. Some will even only eat certain foods full stop. Admittedly I was like this with ketchup which it took till the age of about ten to persuade me didn’t actually go well with ALL foods and that it wasn’t exactly proper behaviour in polite company e.g. my grandmother, resident with us by then. Again I think today’s autistic kids get pandered to far too much on things like this and lose their motivation to grow and develop.

The only troubles I’ve ever had with food texture are (I) never having been keen on the crunch of the apple and (II) being rather too fond of the crunch of certain unhealthy snacks.

But that, I guess, is just like most of us.