Autism: A Different Sensory Experience

by Reid Caplan

"I need to leave because it's too loud for me here."

"But it's not that loud!"

Many autistic people have had a conversation like this. We often perceive things like sound or texture differently than others. That's because most autistic people have issues with sensory processing.

While sensory processing difficulties are an important part of autism, they are often overlooked in the broader conversation about autism. Many discussions around autism center on how autistic people act or appear to others, rather than on what we experience. From diagnosis to research to education and service provision, a focus on “autistic behaviors” can lead to autistic experiences being ignored, in a way that may be harmful to autistic people.

Think about the conversation we mentioned earlier. Autistic people who are sensitive to sound may perceive a place to be too loud, even if someone who doesn’t have sensory processing difficulties thinks the volume is fine. Telling an autistic person who has trouble with sensory processing that their experiences aren’t true (the sound isn’t loud, the sweater isn’t itchy) shows that you are focusing on your own experience, not theirs. And if you’re only focusing on your own experience, you are less likely to look for ways to make the experience of those with sensory processing difficulties more manageable.

Some of the most common programs used as "autism therapy" focus on normalizing our behavior. In the same way that someone may say that a room isn’t too loud, these therapies decide what is “normal” based on the expectations of non-autistic people. Focusing on making autistic people act non-autistic ignores what we are experiencing - and as a result, it can make our experience worse. For example, if an autistic child is hiding under a table because the light in their classroom is too bright for them, forcing that child to sit in their chair doesn't fix the problem they are having. What it does do, however, is take away the child's coping mechanism - and their ability to communicate that they are having a problem at all.

Instead of viewing autism as something to be fixed by making autistic people appear non-autistic, ASAN encourages families, clinicians, service providers, and autistic people ourselves to focus on how autistic people can live well while still being who we are. By learning about our disabilities, strengths and challenges, and accessing communication that works for us, we can find ways to solve problems we may encounter.

There are many approaches that autistic people can take to dealing with sensory processing issues. Occupational therapy can help some autistic people learn more about our own sensory processing and feel less distressed by sensory input, if it is done in a way that we are comfortable with. However, it’s very important to note that occupational therapy for sensory issues must be respectful of our experiences and never coercive. Forcing autistic people to experience painful or aversive stimuli is harmful, whether it is done as behavior modification, or out of disbelief that something that is not painful to you could be painful to us, or even for therapeutic purposes such as desensitization.

Many autistic people use accommodations to deal with sensory processing issues that may arise at school or at work. Examples of accommodations include wearing sunglasses or noise-cancelling headphones in the classroom or workplace, or receiving written instructions instead of spoken instructions. In employment, job responsibilities can also be adjusted to accommodate sensory issues. For example, if someone works in a store, but cannot tolerate the smell of the cleaning products that employees are expected to use when closing the store at the end of the day, that person could ask to only be assigned opening shifts.

Another common way that autistic people regulate our sensory environments is stimming - such as rocking, flapping, or playing with a fidget toy. Doing these things can help our brains process sensory input without getting overwhelmed. While stimming may look odd to some, it’s an important tool to help cope with sensory processing issues - another reason to focus on what works for us instead of prioritizing how we appear to others.

Let's use this Sensory Awareness Month as an opportunity to remind ourselves and others that if you're trying to help someone, you should focus on what they experience, not on how you experience them. Understanding the needs and perspectives of autistic people can help us make more accessible and inclusive sensory environments for autistic people and anyone with sensory processing difficulties.

Photo credit to Gavin Whitner

If you are looking for Sensory Processing treatment for yourself or your child fill out a child or adult intake form now to be treated at STAR Institute Treatment Center or search our Treatment Directory to find services in your area.

Reid Caplan PhotoAs Leadership Programs Coordinator at ASAN, Reid Caplan facilitates the Autism Campus Inclusion (ACI) leadership academy for autistic college students, as well as oversees the Autistic Scholars Fellowship program. Reid received his undergraduate degree in Health and Society from Beloit College, where he was awarded the Wirtz Public Service Prize for his disability-related advocacy on-campus and in the community. Having worked in the Disability Services office at his college, Reid is especially passionate about improving access to resources for disabled students in higher education. He is also interested in how disability is perceived cross-culturally, and has conducted research in Japan on how stigma against mental illness could affect knowledge about and willingness to access mental health care.