Monday, 10 March 2014

Sensory issues in autism are a really big deal

It's just light, get over it
Autism is known as a social condition.  Social deficits and differences are the whole reason it's A Thing.

But there's a lot more to it than that: obsessions, stimming, ropey motor skills, love of routine and order, executive dysfunction, hyperfocus, and sensory disregulation.  Some of us will have all of these, some only a few, but most of us have some of them.

But they're often treated like a side salad to the social skills steak: most interventions and therapy seem to concentrate on social skills, and our success, failure and "functioning" is determined largely by how well we perform socially.

I have a theory that the reason the social skills are seen as the biggest, most important part of the condition is because they're what affects other people.  If we don't make eye contact or we blurt out something inadvertently hurtful, that affects the people around us.  If we're annoyed by the tag in the back of our shirt or the smell of tomato makes us gag, the only person who has to live through that is us.  (Right up to the point where it gets too much, and we completely lose our shit for reasons that make no sense to anyone around us.)

If you have to live through those sensory shenanigans, they're a really big deal.  If there was one thing I could 'cure' about the way I am, it'd be the sensory stuff.

Because if that stuff was under control, and I didn't have to take it into account while I'm working and eating and shopping and dressing and doing every other thing ever, I'd be way better at the social stuff.  It's really hard to be sociable when you're distracted, uncomfortable, in pain, or literally can't hear the conversation you're trying to have over all the other stuff your brain can't filter out.

This video by Aspergers Experts (a website run by two young chaps on the spectrum) agrees.  It goes for nearly a quarter of an hour, but is worth a watch.  They liken the various levels of stuff we have to deal with to a bunch of stuff in a funnel, with sensory stuff at the bottom, then self-awareness, then focus, and so on up to social skills at the top.  You can start by chipping away at the social skills, or you can unclog the bottom of the funnel by sorting out the sensory issues, which gives a lot of other stuff a chance to fall into place.

The video touts exposure to sensory irritants - specific smells, for instance - as a means of building up resistance to them.  This has never worked for me.  Deliberately exposing me to a troublesome sound (sound's my biggest problem) is just going to create an angry, snappy Aspie who's still going to have just as much trouble with that sound the next time it happens.

But if you can find a technique that works for you - whether that's exposure, earplugs, headphones playing white noise, or avoiding the source altogether - I believe it can make you a much happier, more comfortable person.  And a more sociable one, too.