Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) is a neurological difference (I really don’t want to say “neurological disorder,” though that is what you will find in many sources.) It means that, as an Aspie, my mind is differently wired than the mind of someone who is neuro-typical (someone not on the spectrum).
I don’t know why my brain is wired differently or what causes it; I just know that it is. It is my different wiring, however, that makes me not only behave but also perceive differently than the average person. Therefore, one of the ways Asperger’s affects me is in my ability to “integrate” my senses.
Sensory issues are kind of a big deal. They can cause a lot of stress. Also, they can make me really misunderstood. If I seem to be overreacting to a situation and you don’t understand why, chances are good that I’m having difficulty with sensory integration.
Many people with an ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) including people with AS – like me – experience the world very differently because we are either over- or under-sensitive to certain stimuli.
The American Mental Health Alliance says:
“According to Jane Ayres, Ph.D. (2000) sensory integration is defined as ‘the organization of sensory input for use.’ She clarifies by saying, ‘The many parts of the nervous system work together so that a person can interact with the environment effectively and experience appropriate satisfaction.’ From this perceptive, Asperger’s is seen as a neurological disorder which can include dysfunction in the ability to be sensitive to and properly utilize the senses of hearing, gravity and movement (i.e., vestibular), muscles and joints (proprioceptive), touch, and vision.”
Basically, we have to take in information with our senses in order to interact with people and the world around us, but with an ASD it seems there’s a lack of a filter. Everything comes in equally vital, equally loud, equally bright, etc.
Lynne Soraya wrote on her blog on Psychology Today:
“Smells or sounds that may not bother another, may be incredibly intrusive to us. We might not be able bear certain textures. The brain and nervous system my overload when any one sense, or combination of senses, is overwhelmed. A loud stadium, or big crowd may cause us intense stress and perhaps an angry outburst. Even certain types of lighting might cause distress.”
As said above, any one sense or a combination of multiple senses can cause someone with sensory integration issues to become overwhelmed or overloaded. When this happens, things can get pretty tense. Sensitivity, it seems to me, may even go up more once I become overwhelmed. Some people may become very angry, clumsy, or distracted. They may either have an outburst or withdraw.
For me, I seem to just be unable to calm down. I will usually cry and often will yell at whoever happens to be nearby, especially if they’re contributing to my overstimulation. I may have a meltdown. I might just flinch away from a touch or start to engage in stimming behaviors (more about this later). If a sound is bothering me, I will usually turn my head to the side and lean it toward my shoulder, or, if it’s very intense, I will close one or both of my ears. Also, I will have difficulty engaging in conversation while I’m overwhelmed like this because I can’t focus on anything else. This is why large crowd situations can be very hard for me and is probably one reason why the job I held the longest happened to be in a small, quiet office situation.
My Sensory Sensitivities
There are plenty of websites which will give you more comprehensive lists of possible sensory problems, but I want to go ahead and just list some of the ones that bother me, specifically.
- When younger, I was very sensitive to any loud noises. Movie theaters, churches, and concerts were all big problems for me and made me very uncomfortable. This has lessened as I’ve aged and have gotten more accustomed to high volumes, but it still bothers me at times. After being in a loud situation for some time I will often need some time in silence to recover. To cope I cover or plug my ears or try to turn one ear away from the noise. I don’t know why, but I go back and forth on loudness. Sometimes I can tolerate loudness – even enjoy it! Other times I have to turn things way down low because my ears are hurting.
- I’m bothered by discordant sounds as well as the sound of certain types of sirens or alarms. Piercing sounds also bother me. The air raid siren? Absolutely can’t stand it. Why do movies always have to use that sound effect?? Music with screaming falls under the category of sounds that bother me, and listening to it makes me feel angry!
- In group situations, I can’t tune out background noise. I will have difficulty discerning any words because everything jumbles up into noise. If things are too noisy, I will discontinue a conversation because even when I’m watching your mouth I can’t figure out what’s being said to me. I’ve learned to cope in noisy situations by sitting and watching and not trying to engage or understand any particular conversation. Doing more than this will just stress me out.
- I also have trouble processing words sometimes when I can’t see the mouth of the speaker. There are times when I just hear a bunch of sounds/syllables jumbled together and can’t break them apart into words that make sense. This most often manifests as difficulty understanding song lyrics, but it also leads to me having to ask people to repeat themselves frequently. I think I’ve gotten better with this over time.
- Unlike many Aspies, I actually like bright lighting. Dim lighting can be hard on my eyes. My eyes also take a long time to adjust to darkness, but they adjust very quickly to brightness.
- I catch small movements that other people seem not to see. I feel like I’m frequently the first and/or only person to see a bug in a room or something similar.
- I do not blink frequently.
- I can’t wear crew-neck shirts or anything that’s too tight around my neck. I only recently was able to wear a turtleneck and a scarf, but I can only tolerate the sensation if I’m not too stressed. One thing that I’ve gotten better about is tags in my clothing. As a kid I couldn’t stand stags in my shirts! Sometimes, any type of clothing can drive me nuts, or even the feel of my hair on my neck. After a stressful day I will usually be extremely eager to get home, put my hair up, and put on some comfy clothes (like a really loose, baggy, soft, thin t-shirt). Or just strip.
- Light touch bothers me. I don’t know how to describe this to someone who doesn’t have this sensitivity. If you have it, you know what I mean. It’s like it makes my skin crawl. This has gotten better over time, though.
- Shoes bother me. They bother me if they’re too loose or if they’re too tight. If you know me, you’ve probably seen me wearing sneakers with the laces loose and untied.
- In general, I like to be touched/hugged, but I’m also hyper-aware of being touched. There’s no such thing as a casual touch, for me. I don’t touch people when I speak because of this hyper-awareness. It’s not natural. If I’ve ever touched you on the back or arm (not in a hug) or on the head, feel complimented because it probably took a lot of effort. If I’m brushed against in even the slightest way, I’m extremely aware of it. When I was younger it made me feel uncomfortable because I didn’t know how to process the unfamiliar sensations. I guess you could say I want to like it. Hugs I do like, though. Ignore the uncomfortable look on my face. (lol)
- I love back rubs and back scratches and being petted (like on my hair).
- Some showers have a certain spray that hurts me and causes a weird sensation in my neck/throat, similar to gagging (but not gagging).
Vestibular and Proprioceptive
- I have poor spacial awareness, so I frequently bump into things when I walk or stub my toes. I almost always have a bruise or three from whacking my arm on a doorjamb or something like that.
- I also have pretty poor coordination. Just toss something to me and watch me flinch. Actually, no, please don’t.
- I do get motion-sickness sometimes, but not all the time. I guess at some times I am more sensitive to this.
- I like to swing and rock, and when I was younger I would walk circles, for instance, around my friends if they were standing still (this also saved me from having to talk as much). I used to love to spin, but it now makes me feel sick at times. My need to rock and/or swing is related to a hypo-sensitivity to vestibular input, from what I’ve read.
- Also, toe-walking.