Post No.: 0708
It appears that every, or nearly every, autistic person experiences at least one difference (usually several) in how they process sensory information (e.g. regarding touch, sights, sounds, smells, tastes, proprioception, interoception, vestibular/balance) compared to neurotypical people. Sensory differences are therefore now included on the list of diagnostic signs of autism spectrum disorder because it’s so common.
Every one of us might not realise we have these divergences though because we won’t know any differently than our own experiences unless we explicitly try to compare them with the experiences of others. We might, compared to most others, be either hypersensitive (too sensitive) or hyposensitive (under sensitive) to things, or a combination of both. Sensory differences are just one characteristic of most autistic people however – thus just, say, being hypersensitive to certain smells alone won’t mean that one is autistic.
These hypersensitivities and hyposensitivities can present in a vast number of different ways across the various senses – ranging from focusing on extreme details, enjoying watching lights or moving patterns, or seeking to smell all kinds of objects or people, to feeling distressed in noisy environments, being unable to tolerate particular fuzzy textures of fabrics, or having a restricted diet because only certain tastes or textures are palatable. (This suggests that the root cause of some people’s eating disorders is really due to their autism symptoms – the sensory differences towards food, exercise and counting calories being their intense interest, the preference for strict rules and routines, and maybe the need for control or using food to manage difficult emotions. And we know that to truly solve any problem, we need to tackle its root cause.)
It appears to be idiosyncratic too. For instance, an autistic person might react frenetically to being lightly touched by another person, yet show no reaction whatsoever to falling and cutting their knees. Or they might be able to tell you the brand of baked beans just from its smell, yet show no reaction to hot spices in their mouth. Or they might get distressed from the sound of a passing motorcycle, yet fail to look up when you talk to them. Or they might be hypersensitive to external stimuli, yet hyposensitive to internal stimuli like hunger or needing the loo until it suddenly hits them. These present some examples of how someone can be simultaneously both hypersensitive and hyposensitive. Rates of synaesthesia (a rare condition where the senses ‘crosstalk’ e.g. tasting sounds or seeing smells as different colours) appear to be higher amongst autistic people than in the general population too.
Feeling overwhelmed when there’s a lot of auditory or visual noise around is a reasonably common symptom/feature amongst autistic people. The reaction from an autistic child may then appear like a kind of tantrum – but this isn’t a sign of naughtiness. Or an autistic person might be avoiding eye contact with you because, for them, concentrating on your eyes takes away from the concentration required to listen to your words. So be understanding. Be more patient with them. Woof!
Autistic people also exhibit a lot of repetitive behaviours and/or repetitive interests – that is, performing the same action over and over again and/or being incredibly interested in one particular topic in enormous detail.
‘Stimming’, or self-stimulating, is the action of constantly moving or making noises in repetitive or unusual ways. In most cases, these behaviours aren’t hurting anyone and it seems to help autistic people calm down and cope with overwhelming situations. ‘Restricted and repetitive behaviours’ (RRBs) and ‘stereotypic behaviours’ (SBs) include fidgeting a lot, such as by spinning objects, flapping, rocking, jumping, twirling, tapping, pacing, flicking the fingers, constantly lining objects up, or fiddling with hair or clothes. Again, expressing one or two of these behaviours alone though won’t mean that one is autistic.
They’re often repetitively interested in one particular topic or subject in great detail. This can be problematic because of the opportunity costs – spending a lot of time on one fixation can mean not spending enough time on other important subjects in school or healthy activities in life. It might mean a lack of moderation or balance. It could get in the way of other things, including forgetting to even feed oneself or go to the toilet. Autistic people might need to be prompted to do these things because they’re so hyperfocused on something else. They might want to constantly talk about the thing they’re deeply interested in, which could totally bore those they’re interacting with. Always being focused on one narrow area of interest could also reduce creativity because one is less open to information or inspiration from other sources.
But an intense focus in a particular area of interest does bring some advantages – some tasks or careers benefit from being highly aware of the specifics, depth and details of a focused area. One will more easily and quickly visually spot when some detail isn’t quite right or is out of place. It’s basically the state of flow – which shows us that enormous concentration but losing track of time or awareness of wider happenings has its pros as well as cons. It can be a strength or a challenge. It depends on what we’re focused on (e.g. an area of valued expertise or gambling) and what we miss out on (e.g. joining a neighbourhood gang or exercising).
These repetitive behaviours might be performed to block out external information, to increase levels of stimulation, or they might simply feel good or relaxing to that individual? It might help create a feeling of order in an otherwise confusing world? It could be a consequence of the way that their brains are wired?
Likewise, perhaps by placing an extreme focus on specific information, it helps them to ignore or block out other sensory information that may overwhelm and muddle them? One’s hyperfocused interest or ‘spiky profile’ could also be influenced by one’s sensory differences i.e. one will likely gravitate towards focusing on activities that are personally pleasurable in a sensory sense, and avoid whatever one finds aversive.
Some of these RRBs sound like symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), which is an anxiety disorder. But the dissimilarity is that people with OCD will undertake these kinds of behaviours because they feel that something terrible will or might happen if they don’t (e.g. something to them or their family, or to the world). These intrusive negative thoughts precede the compulsive (set of) behaviours (that usually must be done in a certain way and/or for a set number of times), which one believes will avert the terrible consequences and in turn one’s anxiety. Carrying out these behaviours might not bring one any sense of enjoyment or relief physically – it’s only the completion of them that brings relief to the anxiety caused by the intrusive, obsessive thoughts.
Meanwhile, RRBs may also be carried out to reduce anxiety too but the behaviours are more likely to be a source of physical or mental enjoyment in and of themselves. They may relieve any sensory issues that one personally experiences but these behaviours aren’t characterised by the preceding intrusive negative thoughts linked to something bad happening if they’re not performed. Any anxiety caused by being prohibited from performing them will be due to being unable to enjoy their intrinsically soothing effects. (It’s analogously like the contrast between drinking coffee because one finds it delicious versus drinking coffee because one thinks one will fail an exam if one doesn’t and even though one doesn’t really enjoy the taste of coffee.)
Although we still don’t at present know what exactly is going on inside the brains of autistic people, there is a general agreement that they are ‘wired’ differently to non-autistic people. (Post No.: 0695 discussed the ‘double empathy problem’ between autistic and allistic (or non-autistic) people.) A single part of the brain alone doesn’t appear to be responsible, as far as current neuroscience understands. One theory is that there are more neural connections in the brains of autistic compared to non-autistic people. For the latter, the process of synaptic pruning – which happens most prolifically during early childhood but after the age of two, and is thought to clarify the neural pathways that are used by removing any connections that are no longer needed – in effect helps to ‘tidy up’ their brains. But for the former, this process either doesn’t happen or doesn’t happen as much thus their brains get busier and busier, with more and more connections, and this might explain why autistic people process sensory information differently?
One ramification could be that autistic people are less good at pulling together information into a unified picture. They instead tend to focus on all of the sensory sensations separately, like all of the lights, colours, noises and smells of a shopping mall, which can lead to feeling easily overwhelmed. Relatedly, they may be better at spotting details, small features and seeing individual components of objects and systems, which can again lead to feeling easily overwhelmed. This has its advantages in some contexts though – there are reports of autistic people being able to complete jigsaw puzzles upside-down by merely observing the subtle variations in the shapes of the puzzle pieces, to rapidly finding lost earrings on a highly-patterned carpet, and being able to discern every note and every instrument in an orchestral piece of music.
This shows us that a difference is not necessarily a deficit. And if we, as society, can harness the special talents and fortes of each other then the whole will become far greater than the mere sum of its parts.