One of the traits of Autism are sensitivities to sensory stimuli. This means we are particularly sensitive to bright lights and loud noises, as an example. We can be both sensory avoidant and sensory seeking, hypo or hyper sensitive.
To gain a deeper understanding of what this looks like in autistic individuals, we’re going to examine the five senses, including vocal/verbal stimming. We’ll also take a look at three additional “senses,” we all experience, but might not be aware of, as well as how each exists with stimming.
If you’re unaware of what stimming is, I covered it in my last post when explaining repetitive movements as they are basically stimming. And stimming is “the repetition of physical movements or articulated noises exhibited by people, in reaction to a mental or emotional state.”
Alright, now we can move on to the senses.
The 5 Senses
The visual sense has to do with our eyes and what we see around us. As an autistic person visual stimuli is often the most triggering, but one that I’m the least aware of. Crowded spaces like shopping malls are visually overstimulating for me and often leave me feeling overwhelmed and tired. In the moment, however, I don’t always recognize this overwhelm, but I always feel it later when I’m home and it’s visually quiet again.
Below are sensory examples developed from my own experiences as an autistic person.
Crowded and busy places
Strobe and most overhead lighting
Grocery stores (all the packaging and products)
Calm, low lighting
Clean, minimalistic space
Nature and daylight
Oh look another sense that easily triggers me.
Sounds, for me, are the hardest. Especially if I’m already feeling overwhelmed, any small noise is that much louder and more irritating. It’s at its worst first thing in the morning and I often find myself waiting until everyone leaves for the day before I get up or I’ll wear my Loop earplugs before going down for breakfast.
Loud, crowded spaces
Shouting of any kind
Vacuums (realized only recently it’s why I feel so exhausted after cleaning my home)
Multiple conversations happening at once
My Sophie playlist on Spotify (it’s a mix of movie soundtracks that I find calming)
A cat purring
For years and years I never understood why I didn’t like being touched. Sometimes. Other times I wanted my hair played with or a hug, but mostly I wanted people to stay the heck away from me.
Turns out it’s because I’m autistic.
Light touch (taps on the shoulder, tickling, etc.)
Heavy touch (weighted blankets, tight hugs, etc.)
Soft fabrics (teddy bears, soft scrunchies)
Pets (cats and/or dogs to snuggle with)
The sense of smell and its sensitivities are much more common. Most people can name smells they do and do not like. The difference for an autistic person is that we are naturally more sensitive to sensory stimuli. It’s like turning the “volume” up to ten, where for you it might still be at one.
Cooking cabbage or turnips (I can’t stand it)
Heavy chemical smells like bleach and some cleaning products
Baked goods (we do a lot of baking in my household)
Light, fresh scents (candles, aromatherapy)
Taste is one of those weird things and corresponds with a lot of picky eaters. For me, however, when it came to food it was more about the texture of different things than the taste of them.
For example, you cannot get me to eat mushrooms or baked beans. When it comes to the actual taste of something that’s when my dislike of brussels sprouts comes in.
“Slimy” foods and textures
Sweets (I’m a big fan of chocolate)
Ice cold water
Before we move on to the other senses I wanted to touch on verbal and vocal stimming.
Vocal stimming has to do with repetitive sounds, while verbal stimming will express itself as repeating words or phrases. This is also called echolalia and is common in children as they’re learning to speak.
The 6th, 7th, and 8th Senses
Who would have guessed there isn’t just a sixth sense, but a seventh and eighth? Not me, not until I was diagnosed and started doing research.
Vestibular (Balance and Spatial Orientation)
The vestibular system is about our sense of balance and spatial orientation. It’s being aware of where our body is in relation to where we are.
If I’m not mistaken it’s why some people clumsily run into furniture and door knobs. I believe this also explains why I hate trampolines and my proneness to motion sickness.
The vestibular system “is responsible for providing our brain with information about motion, head position, and spatial orientation; it also is involved with motor functions that allow us to keep our balance, stabilize our head and body during movement, and maintain posture.”
Add in some extra sensitivity and you end up with dizziness and nausea all too quickly. After a lifetime of getting car sick even during a fifteen minute drive I now know why and actively work to prevent it by limiting other sensory stimuli by turning off the music, wearing sunglasses, and keeping the windows up or wearing earplugs.
Proprioception (Body Awareness)
Proprioception is closely connected with the vestibular system as proprioception, “is the sense that lets us perceive the location, movement, and action of parts of the body. It encompasses complex sensations, including perception of joint position and movement, muscle force, and effort.”
Clumsiness also comes into play here, but this is why autistics will flap their hands or rock back and forth, even lining up their toys. This form of stimming is all linked back to proprioception and the vestibular system. And was probably why I was obsessed with rocking chairs as a kid.
Interoception (Internal Body Awareness)
Interoception is being aware of the internal sensations of your body such as hunger, thirst, the need to stretch, etc.
In autistics there is often a noticeable lack of this awareness. I often forget to go to the bathroom or skip lunch without realizing. While the average person automatically relates a rumbling stomach to hunger and then eats something to rectify that, an autistic person might not connect the two in the first place.
For me, if I’m really focused on something and I don’t realize the time, it takes getting dizzy and my hands to start shaking before I think, “Oh, I better eat something.”
Sensory Modulation and Final Thoughts
Sensory Modulation “refers to the brain’s ability to regulate its own activity, essentially managing ‘how much’ of each sensory input to ‘tune into’ at any point in time.”
Autistic people struggle with this due to being more sensitive to stimuli.
It’s difficult to tune out details because of the way our brains are wired. While neurotypicals are capable of walking into a crowded space and tuning out the noise level, visual stimuli, and more – autistics cannot, always, do this.
It’s primarily why we are so easily overwhelmed and overstimulated. We’re taking in every detail around us whether we want to or not. I walk into a crowded space and I notice the bright lights, the sheer amount of people, all the different smells, the music you can hardly hear over the chatter, and more. If you’re neurotypical and you had to take all of this sensory information in, you’d be pretty overwhelmed too.
All in all, this is why many autistics seek accommodations in most public spaces such as earplugs and headphones, wearing sunglasses inside, and carrying fidget toys with us. Each sensory stimuli we actively seek helps regulate the stimuli we can’t readily control in our environment.
That’s all for now, see you next time.