I Feel It All: The Experience of Sensory Stimulation

Note: this entry was first written two years ago. With time I’ve come to reevaluate the idea of it. While the first half is still accurate, the recent atrocity depicting a child walking through a mall made me realize a correction was needed. So I have done so.

One of the most challenging parts of living with autism is dealing with my senses. My life has been one filled with a constant bombardment of data that I struggle to process on a daily basis. Whereas most people have a filter to process this information, I lack a solid one. As a result my life is one where I am constantly aware of so many things most wouldn’t.

I bring this issue up because it feels connected to last week’s entry on anxiety. Our issues with our senses are a key source of our anxiety after all. When the world is incredibly loud, you want quiet. The struggle comes in trying to make others understand why we feel what we feel.

To tackle this issue, let’s hit the senses one by one.

This one has never been a big problem for me honestly and that’s due in part to having dreadful vision. As you’ll note in my profile pic I wear glasses. That said, I still face an intense bombardment on a daily basis. Focusing can be hard if there’s a lot going on around me. I also get headaches from fluorescent lights pretty easily. I love natural light though.

I am quick to react poorly to a bad scent. Given enough time I’ll adjust but I really can’t focus if something is irritating me. The scent of Banana nauseates me and my negative reaction to it made childhood “fun”. I do however love citrus scents. The smell of pipe tobacco warms my heart.

My issues with food will comprise a full entry at some point. I have a very violent reaction to foods I don’t like. I have extremely sensitive taste buds. Strangely that makes me more prone to embracing strong flavors like garlic, which I love in everything, and “hot” flavors.

And here we hit the two senses that really bother me. I am extremely touch sensitive. I do NOT like to be touched. There is a grand total of one person I am ok with touching me unexpectedly–Amanda of course–and even that can have moments. Touch is very overwhelming. Strong touch, like a full hand grasping me, doesn’t bother me half as much as the intense stimuli of a light touch. Anything ticklish is utterly overwhelming. I HATE bugs on me.

I also hate slimy textures. Anything slimy will unsettles me horribly. I will have a genuine phobic reaction to it. This carries over to food. I like hard foods. Pastas, creams, and rice are disgusting to me. I can’t handle how they feel in my mouth.

The ultimate nightmare. My issues with sound were the first to get noticed. Loud noises cause me to freak out. I’m not exaggerating. I will escape a situation if the noise level is too high. It’s not extremely loud noises either. A theater with ear exploding sound is awesome. I want to feel explosions in my spleen. I don’t like loud noise like a low flying jet but I can handle it.

It’s unfocused noise like lots of people talking. There’s nothing to focus on and it makes me nervous. I get overstimulated. It makes me feel like something chaotic is going to happen. We’re creatures of order after all. Chaos is where bad things happen.

So, with all of that in mind, imagine the hell that is trying to process all of that. Take a festival for example. There I’ve got sights: a ton of people all around me. Touch is engaged with the heat and insects seeking my blood. Smells are coming at me from all directions ranging from good ones like food to atrocious ones like exhaust from generators. Sounds include music blaring and the endless sound of conversation. No, I don’t go to many festivals.

This is every single day for me. Trying to process the overwhelming input I get. It is a difficult thing to live through. You just want the world to stop so you can focus. Ultimately that’s the issue after all. Often I want to focus but I can’t because there’s too much. If this sounds like young Clark Kent in Man of Steel, that scene hit home for me so yes it’s similar.

There are methods for getting through it of course. I love breathing exercises. There are circumstances where yes, a pint of alcohol isn’t uncalled for. Alcohol does reduce the sensitivity but I sure as hell only recomnmend it at home. For sound, earbuds, even without soothing music, help quite a bit.  We also make our own stimuli, such as chanting, humming, or shaking our hands. Anything to block the world our. When I can, I do leave situations that overwhelm me and I avoid them at all costs. You won’t see me anywhere but work on Black Friday. But in the end, the best thing I can say is that I usually just grit my teeth and get through it.

But you know what? This isn’t all of it. And that’s something I’ve come to realize with time. So a year after the first half, I’m going to deliver a much needed rebuttal to the narrative that even I’ve helped create. Let me shed light on how my sensory stimulation is wonderful too. I’ll go in the same order.

Sight: One of my favorite hobbies is going on Google Street View. From these high quality images I’m blasted with detail. The effect it has is little different from an intense hallucination in the best way. My mind scrambles to process every tiny piece and I love it. My condition means that I have the capacity to receive this input and form a full picture when others might gloss over things like street signs and businesses.

Smell: Scent is the sense most tied to memory. I feel this very acutely. Bacon frying brings back memories of my paternal grandmother. Burning leaves return me to my bike rides. I recently cracked open a tropical Sprite for the first time in years and the scent took me back to Journalism conventions. The fact that I have such a powerful linkage is directly due to my condition.

Taste: I made a quick, cynical mention of alcohol. Let me point out the power the taste of a good pint of a craft cider has on me. Every slight note, from the wood to the floral to the ferment comes out. Tastes I like are the absolute best. They energize and enliven me through the day.

Touch: Weather is the greatest sensation if you’re sensitive to it. Sure muggy days stink but this past Tuesday was cool and sunny. The breeze felt amazing on my skin as I worked in the yard. There are other sensations I like too. The comforting feeling of my wife’s hand on my shoulder. A good warm blanket. Velvet. Rippled textures.

Sound: Returning back to Tuesday, as I stood in my yard which faces the busiest street in town, I heard traffic moving steadily. I heard dogs belonging to my very pleasant neighbors. I heard the wind rustle the leaves. I could hear a ball hit a metal bat across the street. There are noises that I love. Every sound relating to Amanda is joy. Music is bliss.

Yes, overstimulation hurts. It’s painful. But autism does not feel like walking through a clownhouse. Everything is simply amplified. That does mean pain but it means joy too. Both need to be discussed.

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