Sensory hypersensitivities

What is sensory hypersensitivity?
IN BRIEF

Sensory hypersensitivity is when the brain attaches more importance to one sense, so a person with auditory hypersensitivity could be very sensitive to noises, feeling overwhelmed if, for example, in the supermarket, sounds come from many sources at once, if they last a long time or are very loud, or even if they are simply surprising. Hypersensitivity can be very distressing for the person experiencing it, which is why we often notice strong reactions, as in autistic people. There are tools and strategies available for managing sensory information.

Sensory hypersensitivity

Too much stimulation comes from one or more of the senses, and the brain can’t handle it all. It constantly receives sensory information from different parts of the body, and when it has difficulty filtering and processing the countless signals, it can overreact to these stimuli.

Scenario

Jolene is in class and needs to concentrate on her work, but all around her she hears sniffing, the sound of erasers, chairs scraping against the floor and conversations taking place in the corridor. Added to this are the smells of soap, shampoo and the unhygienic scent of some of the other students. The florescent lights assault her, so she tries to block out the light with her hand, but with her arm always in the air, the fabric of the sleeve of her sweater irritates her. Before she even thinks about answering the questions, she has an enormous amount of work to do, which has nothing to do with what they're trying to assess: her knowledge of the exam subject.

What are the consequences of sensory hypersensitivity?

Not only can sensory hypersensitivities be intrusive, but in many cases they are distressing, preventing people from accessing their full potential, forming relationships, participating in activities and even holding down a job. They cause fatigue, irritability, anxiety and a great deal of frustration. But there are solutions.

What to do in case of sensory hypersensitivity?

Solutions to help manage sensory hypersensitivities are often among the easiest to implement. Indeed, simple tools, stimulus breaks or a more respectful approach to sensory distress can make a huge difference.

Breaks

Set up regular breaks to allow the overflow of information to drain away and “start afresh”.

Tools

Use physical tools such as shells, a weighted vest, appropriate clothing, tinted glasses, a chew toy, or any other object that can help the person mitigate the consequences of hypersensitivity.

Respect

To avoid exacerbating the problem, it’s imperative that the person in question respects themselves and those around them.

Research

For every type of sensory hypersensitivity, there are other people who have found ways to manage it. The results can be surprising. Solutions for each sense are proposed on this site.

Environment

Having access to a calm, less stimulating environment can be very beneficial, allowing the person to develop a better tolerance to the attacks on their senses even at other times when they aren’t able to access that environment.

Rehabilitation

In certain cases, professionals can offer sensory rehabilitation, while respecting the individual’s abilities and wishes.

The worst of my sensory hypersensitivities is the one related to hearing. I use the big safety-equipment-type earplugs for loud, persistent noises, like when the alarm company is doing tests. I wear my musician's earplugs to interact successfully in noisier environments, like when I'm playing sports in the gym, and at home I use headphones with active noise cancellation. I avoid going to the supermarket or I go there as briefly as possible, although now it's possible to order online and pick up purchases in the store's parking lot, which is a nice solution. When I can, I regularly take breaks from the ambient noise. At home, no one imposes the sound of what they're listening to on the other members of the family.

The famous comfort zone

There are many publications, suggestions and unsolicited advice pushing people to get used to being further out of their comfort zone. But for autistic people it is actually very rare for them to get to be in their comfort zone at all. Autistic people are constantly adapting to an environment that is often hostile and not designed for them. Forcing someone to go beyond their limits can amplify their hypersensitivity.

Caution

Too frequent sensory deprivation can have the opposite effect, making the person even more intolerant of stimuli. It's all about finding the right balance, one that allows the person to go as far as possible in reaching their full potential, while respecting their abilities and objectives.

Sensory hypersensitivities, sense by sense

Sight

This is what we see. The person can be affected by lights, patterns, colors…

Hearing

This is what we hear. The person may be affected by noises, ambient sounds, voices, music, etc.

Touch

This is what we touch. The person may be affected by textures, can refuse to touch certain objects...

Taste and texture

This is what we eat or place in our mouth. The person can be affected by the tastes, textures, shapes, quantities of food, etc.

Smell

This is what we smell. The person can be affected by odors...

Nociception

This is the perception of pain. The person may react more strongly to pain than others...

Toniception

This is the perception of the degree of muscle contraction (force applied). The person may use excessive gentleness or thoroughness..

Thermoception

This is the perception of temperature. The person may react more strongly to cold or heat than others.

Chronoception

This is the time perception. Can be affected by time, be very precise or very worried about time.

Vestibular

This is the perception of balance. The person may easily get dizzy, have balance problems, etc.