This can take various forms. Sensory-seeking behaviour involves unusual curiosity about or desire to engage with certain sensory information; repeatedly touching something of a particular texture, staring at certain moving objects, or listening to loud sounds. An Autistic person’s response to sensory input may vary from day to day, and is inextricably linked to their emotional state (and vice versa). Staring at glitter moving in water is a perfect example of sensory-seeking behaviour. When I pick up my magic baton and swirl its contents around, it’s a way to focus my attention: by zeroing in on the sparkles, I can tune out the rest of the “noise”.
Sensory under-responsivity is when a person might be slower to react to sensory input that would ordinarily elicit a response; this might be a muted pain response, or not noticing that the bath water is too hot. Sensory over-responsivity, then, is the opposite: a person being more attuned to sensory input than others (like hearing tiny sounds, or the specific feeling of certain blends of fabric fibres), with a resulting negative emotional response (such as feeling anger or disgust) that can be described as sensory-avoidant.
“My hearing is like having a sound amplifier set on maximum loudness,” Autistic scientist and activist Temple Grandin has written. “My ears are like a microphone that picks up and amplifies sound.”
It is in the context of sensory over-responsivity that the notion of sensory overload emerges; my anxiousness, if not outright anxiety, has always been linked to the threat of sensory overload.
Sensory overload is one of the aspects of Autistic experience that most non-Autistic people are familiar with, at least in an abstract sense. While all Autistic people react to sensory input differently, there is perhaps a misunderstanding that “sensory overload” must necessarily relate to, well, an overload of sensory input – too loud, too bright, too hard. But with the exception of fireworks (which I now love), I was not troubled by loud noises or crowded spaces as a child; indeed, I loved huge noises, like motorsports and monster trucks and sirens.
Surprise huge noises, on the other hand, were terrifying. I don’t remember much fine detail about my first showbag – Inspector Gadget, 1986 – other than the all-consuming existential fear of the two translucent, glitter-filled pop balls that came with it. For those who did not spend the second half of the 20th century racked with terror, pop balls (those tough rubber domes that you turn inside out, then wait until they turn themselves back with an enthusiastic “pop”; they are occasionally and more accurately known as “eye poppers”) might be a vague, happy childhood memory. For me they were an exercise in abject dread, as there was no telling when the loud noise would happen, and I would usually start screaming well before the jolly “pop!”
My tormentors were always insidious: the itch of a woollen spencer against my skin, a clothing tag, the grip of sock elastic around my ankles, the hum of electricity in the walls …would put me on edge. Having my hair brushed was a campaign of emotional terror that had to be approached with military precision.
These days, they are sold online by purveyors of “therapeutic” toys: “Excellent for isolating thumbs and building finger strength, while also helping with hand-eye co-ordination when catching them on the way back down.” Sure, I guess that’s true, in the same way that one might build finger strength by flipping the pin out of a grenade, throwing it in the air, and then improving one’s hand-eye co-ordination by catching it on the way back down.
Even the term – “therapeutic toys” – instils in me a vague sense of nausea, like so many hideous euphemisms of neoliberalism. Therapeutic toys are a million-dollar industry, designed to convince beleaguered parents that instead of chewing on jigsaw puzzle pieces and Starbucks straws, their Autistic children could, instead, chew on a $50 hypoallergenic food-grade silicone “chewy”. I do detect a distinct whiff of bullshit, especially since Autistic people are very good at making their own “sensory toys”.
Spread out in front of me on my desk as I write is my current brace of “therapeutic” objects: the hang label from an op-shop purchase, folded multiple times into a little cigar of cardboard; three Hi-Chew wrappers in various states of folding and rolling; a kombucha bottle cap squashed in half, a smooth dent on top for resting a finger on, a jagged rim underneath for running a thumb back and forth over; a pile of leathery old mandarin skins that are nice to crumble between my fingers. I do all of those things in order to help me tune out the threat of sensory overload.
My tormentors were always insidious: the itch of a woollen spencer against my skin, a clothing tag, the grip of sock elastic around my ankles. The hum of electricity in the walls or the jingle of light bulbs and fluoro tubes would put me on edge, and still does. Having my hair brushed was a campaign of emotional terror that had to be approached with military precision. The sensation of someone lightly brushing a hand across my skin feels like I’m being attacked with a vegetable peeler. The sound of people chewing (even worse if mouths hang open) makes social dining an act in high-wire terror. To this day, I cannot bear the sensation of the condensation that forms on the outside of a drinking glass or takeaway cup, and will wrap them in paper napkins.
Sensory overload – whether courtesy of a clothing tag, scary noises or a weird smell – is also often a one-way ticket to a meltdown. I don’t know what it’s like to be possessed, but I imagine it feels something like a meltdown: a sudden seismic shift that you cannot control.
Edited extract from Late Bloomer: How an Autism Diagnosis Changed My Life (Hardie Grant) by Clem Bastow, on sale now.
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