Polly's pages (aka 'Donna Williams')

Ever the arty Autie

Sensory Hypersensitivities?


Back to Normality by Donna Williams

Most people have heard of people with autism being annoyed by the tag on their underpants or T shirt, their distress at the discomfort of their shoes, their distress at wearing anything but the softest of fabrics, even wearing their clothing with the seams on the outside to avoid the distraction/irritation of ‘imperfect’ feeling clothing. And then there’s those who reduce their foods to only those of a certain brand or packaging, or begin to manifest vomiting upon expectation to try foods outside of their comfort zone. But is this specifically autistic?

Human beings tend to be combinations of sensation neutral, sensation seekers or sensation avoiders in quite differing combinations. Take your gaze off the meltdown and look closely at even the most seemingly sensory hypersensitive sensation avoider with or without autism and you will still find some sensations they actually seek and other things they are entirely sensation neutral about. There are certain personality traits which tend more strongly toward anxiety, avoidance or controlling behaviors so personality is part of what determines each person’s balance. If one has additional ongoing crises or challenges these will add to what style one already naturally takes. In the end though its about general human diversity and we’re all in there somewhere.

And food is no different. Emotionally, being expected to ingest things one is extremely emotionally aversive to commonly causes not only behavioral avoidance but even vomiting as in the case of Food Avoidance Emotional Disorder.

So our assumption is it must be physical, it must be sensory, it must be neurological. But many non autistic young children will reject a new food up to 14 times before conceding to give it a small try. So emotional resistance is a human thing, a personality thing, and neurological chaos, whether that be information processing problems, sensory perceptual disorders or sensory integration dysfunction/delay, may simply increase one’s emotional resistance to a whole range of new experiences they don’t feel complete control over.

Dealing with sensory avoidance means working with it on all levels. This could mean neurologically through brain gym and sensory integration or desensitization programs. It could mean emotionally through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy using reality testing and other techniques to help us explore our over focusing on our hypersensitivities and their actual balance without our wider range of sensory responses. It could mean understanding our environmental modeling, the impact of labels and their associated stereotypes and archetypes and how these effect our awareness of some sensitivities over others. It could mean understanding our personality traits, their strengths and weaknesses and how we plan to challenge rather than crumble under the discomforts they present us with. It could mean working with an OT to work out strategies to most productively live alongside our own collection of sensation avoidances, sensation seeking and that to which we are sensation neutral so we don’t excuse ourselves out of our own potential or the human race yet still design a life which best fits our own patterns whilst leaving room for the potential that all humans also change.

One thing is for sure, there will always be those of us with enough bravado to tolerate a T shirt tag but even some of those then privately go and rip them out 😉

Donna Williams, BA Hons, Dip Ed.
Author, artist, singer-songwriter, screenwriter.
Autism consultant and public speaker.


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