Sensory features

Sensory features, what are they?
SIMPLIFIED EXPLANATION

Our brains enable us to feel touch, heat, hear sounds, perceive light and process a great deal of information related to the senses. In autism, the way the brain processes the senses is often different. It may amplify the senses, and the person is said to be hypersensitive, or it may reduce the senses, and the person is said to be hyposensitive. Being sensory hypersensitive isn't about being a sensory superhero, it's simply that sensory information takes up an enormous amount of space, and it's the same for hyposensitives; they're not paralyzed by the senses, but they receive information related to the targeted senses less effectively. One particularity is that a person can be hyposensitive in the perception of one of the senses and hypersensitive in another. They may even be both within the same sense, for example if they are hyposensitive to firm touch and hypersensitive to surface touch.

How is sensory perception affected in autism?

Autistic people often process sensory information differently. It can be difficult to process and interpret information from the senses.

Analogy to understand the place of the senses in autism

Senses are like a field hockey team. Normally, a poorly positioned player with the puck will pass to a better-positioned player. In autism, the player with the puck tries to get to the goal, even if that’s not his or her role. For example, if you’re in a meeting, your best position is your eyes and ears. You don’t have to worry about how you’re sitting or how your clothes are touching your skin. In autism, you don’t choose which sense has control of the puck, so if the sense that manages the contact of the clothes decides it has control and is the one heading towards the goal, chances are it won’t be possible to follow the meeting. In autism, the senses take up a lot of space. – Analogy by Mathieu Boily

Important

Attacking the senses should never be minimized or invalidated, as this can be very damaging for the autistic person. There are many tools available, most of which are very easy to use, to avoid sensory overload. Learning about the problematic sense and how to manage it better is a must.

Sensory hypersensitivity

Autistic people may have difficulty filtering and be very sensitive to sensory stimuli such as noise, light or textures, which is difficult to manage and can even be painful. Sensory hypersensitivity, or excessive sensory sensitivity, is not about having superhero senses, but rather that information from these senses is perceived as having priority. It’s an excessive or inappropriate reaction to sensory stimuli that can lead to irritability, frustration and often suffering for the person who has to endure it.

Invasive sounds make me suffer; I feel as if they're devouring my intelligence and my ability to manage myself, leaving me destroyed. They often make me cry or deprive me of certain activities.

Attention

It's not a question of willpower, attitude or habit whether or not a person has sensory hypersensitivity. Blaming them for their condition only adds more stress to an already complex situation.

Sensory hyposensitivity

Sensory hyposensitivity could be described as partial or delayed information from the senses. It’s an inadequate or inappropriate response to sensory stimuli. It’s not a paralysis of the senses, it’s simply that the message gets through little or poorly. In some people, this can lead to difficulties in coordinating movements or perceiving their own body, thus affecting their ability to perform certain tasks or activities requiring the use of the affected senses.

Fun fact

A person can have both sensory hypersensitivities and hyposensitivities, and even have both for different facets of the same sense.

Sensory overload

Autistic people are much more at risk of sensory overload. When information from the senses arrives with too much density or intensity, or lasts too long, the person can enter into severe distress, as the brain can no longer process the continuous flow of sensory information. This can lead to a shutdown of the sensory system, which in turn can provoke a number of reactions, such as cutting off the person’s communication with the environment, triggering crying, panic or even a seizure.

Attention

Some "sorcerer's apprentices" improvise forced exposure of the person to the stimulus that is causing them pain. Such a method is barbaric, and risks causing considerable harm to the autistic person. It is imperative to call on professionals who will rigorously follow a gradual and controlled exposure process, which will be respectful of the autistic person and his or her abilities and desires. In many cases, the person will also be accompanied by a multidisciplinary team in which a mental health professional may occasionally intervene, to ensure that things are going well for someone taking part in this type of therapy or sensory rehabilitation.

Références
  1. Rimland, 1990

Valérie Jessica Laporte

WRITER SPECIALIZING IN AUTISM (FRENCH)