Autism Acceptance Week: What is Sensory Sensitivity?
How many senses do we have? The common answer is five: sound, sight, touch, scent and taste. Sensory processing sensitivity can affect any of the senses, which reaches far beyond what we hear, see, feel, smell or taste. Thermoception, for example, is the sense of how warm or cold we feel. Others include Nociception (pain), Equilibrioception (balance) and proprioception (body awareness). Ecopsychologist Michael J Cohen suggests we have up to 53 unique sensory experiences, including color, gravity, motion, air pressure, desire, hunger, thirst and various other inputs.
Sensory sensitivity, also referred to as Sensory Processing Disorder, is the inability to regulate these inputs effectively. The human brain has evolved to have an incredible capacity for processing power. Conscious thought can manage approximately less than 100 bits per second. To give context, the overall mind can receive over 11,000,000 bits per second! Our ancestors needed this information to constantly evaluate the risks of any given situation to survive. In modern times, we still use this system subconsciously. People can experience hypo (a lack of) or hyper (in excess of) sensitivity of the senses. For more on sensory differences, see here.
Sensory Sensitivity for those on the Autism Spectrum
One very challenging area for people on the Autism Spectrum is sensory processing regulation – the way an individual takes in information, evaluates this data, and filters out what is not important in the current moment. When someone struggles to filter information, it can become extremely overwhelming, distressing and upsetting. This results in sensory anxiety, fatigue and meltdown/shutdowns.
For a lighthearted, insightful article on experiencing sensory processing sensitivity and anxiety, read this post by Jess Dillon, who chronicles her challenges with clever cartoons in Eating Off Plastic.
For a narrative experience of what sensory sensitivity could be like, here is a video about sensory impact. Here is a fictitious first-person simulation produced by the National Autistic Society.
Please note these video clips are designed to simulate overload and include potential triggers.