Okay, maybe you do know these things! But I didn’t until college, and I still don’t see them talked about. So, here’s what I learned – which helped me cope with life. I’ll assume my readers know autism affects senses significantly, even if it’s often ignored in the diagnostic criteria.
1. First, there’s not just five senses! Sure, there’s touch, smell, taste (closely related to smell), sight, and hearing. But there is also things like the position of our body in space, our sense of hunger and thirst, knowing how the parts of our body are positioned (proprioception), sense of time, and others. Even senses that seem related aren’t necessarily – for instance, the feeling of pressure, temperature, and itch are actually distinct senses (heck, even pressure isn’t one sense, but at least two – light touch is processed distinctly different than deep pressure)! Any of these can be affected by autism or other neurological differences. For me, my internal body senses (Am I hot or cold? Am I hungry? Am I sick?) and proprioception are generally weak, but other senses are significantly more sensitive (light touch). Others might have more impact to their sense of time (common with ADHD), taste, etc. It’s important when looking into your own sensory processing (or that of a loved one) that you consider not just the senses you learned about in elementary school, but also all the other senses and their intricacies – and to remember one might be affected yet another might be typical.
2. There’s a difference between sensitivity and registration. For instance, a sound might affect an autistic person differently than a non-autistic person, because it causes the autistic person pain (and doesn’t do that for most non-autistic people). Yet, at the same time, this person who is in pain doesn’t always react to the sound. So an outside observer might conclude, “This person isn’t really in pain, because they would always be in pain when this sound was present if it was real. They are manipulative.” That’s not true! It’s possible for someone to be pain-sensitive to sounds, yet also have low registration. In other words, the sound really isn’t painful until it’s noticed, and the person may even have a harder time actually noticing the sound! This is not manipulation or deceit. Rather, it’s the way some people’s senses work. The converse is also true – someone might be high registration and notice things few others do. But registration and sensitivity are not the same thing – one is the sense reaching a threshold of affecting the person, the other is how much it affects the person.
3. Senses don’t always work in the way an observer would expect. I was thinking about this during the week, when I was riding a motorcycle. Why can I do that without problem, but I can’t help but bang into a table when I walk through my living room? It’s actually not complex, but it’s also not obvious. I have trouble with the sense of proprioception – knowing where my body is in space. Obviously, that’s important when walking around your living room if you don’t want to bang into things! It’s also important on a motorcycle, as you need to have a strong connection to the environment – and the positions of your body parts is pretty important for that! So, why can I do one, but not the other? It’s simple: I get lots of feedback from the motorcycle. It’s vibrating, I feel the wind, there’s bumps in the road, etc. In other words, I get lots of input – and with that input, I know where all the parts of my body are within space. Walking through the living room, I don’t get that input. So I knock over the coffee table! I suspect if we put my living room on giant springs, I’d be fine. But it’s not. So I’ll keep banging into things. But this is the important thing to realize: someone might see someone that walks awkwardly through their house and think, “The last place they need to be is on a motorcycle. They get hurt just walking. I can’t imagine what will happen on a bike.” They would be wrong, though – it turns out the bike may be safer than walking, because I get the input into my body to know where everything is. In a way, a motorcycle is assistive technology!
That’s in fact the key to all three points: how people interpret the world through their senses is not necessarily easy to understand, obvious, or predictable. But that doesn’t mean it’s not real.