One of the key elements of autism is having sensory differences. This can mean that we are over sensitive or under sensitive to any one or a combination of the senses. It can mean that we either avoid or seek out sensations. Some things we are so sensitive to that we experience it as painful. This could be (and has been reported as such by some autistic people) what is behind some autistic melt downs, especially if the autistic person is non-verbal and does not have an alternative way of communicating their distress at sensory overload.
I’ll describe what goes on for me with the hope that if you are (or suspect you are) autistic then it might help you in your own journey of self-discovery. If you’re not autistic then maybe it will inform how you behave with any autistic people (child or adult) that you meet, perhaps treating them with greater kindness and understanding, maybe even helping them to resolve whatever is overloading them.
Let’s start with touch as that’s the one I’ve been most aware from an early age (although I had no idea it was autism-related). As a child (and still now, obvs) I couldn’t bear the feel of rough textures on my fingers, hands or feet. I couldn’t bear nylon socks (the new fangled, easy-to-wash fabric that everything was made of in the 60s and 70s) or crunchy nylon nightdresses, although I loved the smooth, silky feel of the care labels on the night dresses. I avoided rough fabrics or surfaces but sought out smooth and silky textures. I hated the itchy woollen blanket on my bed but loved the satin edging to it up around my face.
To accidently touch a rough or crunchy fabric is, for me, like fingernails down a chalkboard. It makes me shudder, sets my teeth on edge and makes me dance around, shaking my hands to try and get rid of the rough feeling. To touch something smooth is soothing and calming.
This ties into one of my avoidance strategies and a couple of my stims.
I once had a boyfriend (not a very nice one) who noticed that I habitually tucked my thumbs inside my curled up fingers. I had never noticed that I did that. He picked on it and told me not to do it (told you he wasn’t very nice).
Only once I self-identified did I twig that doing this protected my fingers from touching things, even the nice textures; you can have too much of a good thing you know. It is also about keeping my skin hydrated. I do not like having the skin on my hands or feet feeling dry and tight (or have anything ‘drying’ on them, for example flour or dust). This creates a physical tension inside me, like a coiled spring, until I can wet my hands or put on some handcream. As a child, the skin on my feet used to split right across the balls of my feet when I wore nylon socks in synthetic shoes.
My most frequent stim is that I constantly run my fingertips over my thumbnails and my thumbs over my fingernails. If I wear nail varnish the stim becomes all-encompassing to the extent that it begins to feel like a sore tooth or an exhausting nausea of over-indulgence and I have to stop. I also constantly touch the back of my teeth with my tongue, with the same over-stimulation impact, when I’m tense.
I can wear (natural fibre) socks so long as I have shoes on. I cannot stand to be in stocking feet.
I cannot walk on carpet in bare feet.
When I shop for clothes the second thing I do (after pre-selecting colour) is to touch the fabric. It’s a feather-light touch, just in case it’s an unbearable fabric. You can’t always tell just by looking what the fabric will feel like.
I can only wear loose-fitting clothes made from soft, draping fabrics.
Watching me you might not see any of this, other than perhaps my twiddling fingers, but it’s like a volcano inside.
Part 2 I’ll talk about Sound. Hope you come back to take a look.