I am planning on writing something about sensory issues over the next few days to weeks. However, it is a huge subject meaning that it is quite a long narrative, so I will break it into a series of 3 or 4 blogs to also explain about causes, symptomology, and techniques for management of sensory issues as well as sensory soothing and self regulation. Hopefully it will be something people can relate to or prove useful, whether they are neurodiverse or not, and have any pre-existing knowledge or not.
Somewhere between 5 to 15 per cent of children and adults will experience sensory issues, not all of whom will have diagnoses such as Autism, ADHD, Dyspraxia or Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). Most people are aware of the five basic senses of touch, taste, smell, sight and sound. These were first described by Aristotle in the 4th century and are usually something a child learns at a relatively young age. However, since then the list has been expanded, with researchers now describing 9 confirmed senses, and an estimated total of 33 which have been debated and contested. The nine confirmed senses are the five basic senses of Vision (Opthalmoception), Hearing (Audioception), Taste (Gustaoception), Smell (Olfacoception) and Touch (Tactioception), plus the additional four senses of the perception of heat (Thermoception), the awareness of pain (Nociception), the awareness of your own body parts – their movement, and position (Proprioception), and the sense of balance and whole body position (Equilibrioception, also known as the Vestibular sense – controlled by the fluid in the ears). The last two work in tandem to help process our environment. The vestibular sense is actually present prior to birth and the earliest sense to be developed, at the age of only five months gestation. Though personally I’m still waiting for my sense of balance to kick in.
Generally, sensory issues present as hypo-reactivity (being under reactive) or hyper-reactivity (being over reactive). Hyper-reactivity can look like an aversion to sound, a dislike of bright lights or strong smells, struggling with food taste or texture, or clothing textures. Hypo-reactivity could look like clumsiness, accidentally breaking things, struggling to differentiate between food tastes, smells, or background noises, and high tolerance to pain. People’s response to these sensory problems, are that they may be a sensory seeker, a sensory avoider or some combination of these. This can even look different from sense to sense. For example I am a sensory avoider of noise and texture. I struggle with the texture and feel of both clothing and food. I also dislike bright lighting or loud noises, and very strong tastes. Except cheese. But that’s cheese. The world makes exceptions for cheese I have found. My little girl is a proprioceptive and vestibular seeker who loves to spin, jump, dance and whirl, but dislikes loud noise or clothing textures. Everybody has their own ‘sensory profile’, and understanding this can give a greater insight to their processing and preference of environments, as well as their functioning and behaviours. Most importantly, it can help understand how best to help that person regulate their senses to improve their general functioning. This is what the rest of this blog series will focus on.
It’s worth remembering sensory profiles can change. Since childhood I have struggled with textures of food and clothing. From my teens I noticed an aversion to bright light and wore tinted glasses for a long time. But in the last ten years my aversion to sound has become an overriding issue. When I asked the person who diagnosed my autism about these sensory changes, she explained it is a reaction to my changing environment and stressors. So it’s worth revisiting these profiles and finding new ways to regulate. I often now suffer from ‘sensory overload’ a lot. Whether this can be attributable to autism, bipolar, ME, fibromyalgia or anything else is not something I know, (as I’m medically ‘interesting’ I can never usually pin down the single cause of any given symptom), but in the end the main thing is to help it rather than worry about the cause. My biggest sensory trigger is noise, and this is significantly worse when I am unwell in any way, both physically or mentally. In the case of my hyper-reactivity to this sense I liken it to cotton wool earplugs. My theory is that most people are born with an internal filter (the cotton wool earplugs), that allows them to remove unwanted and extraneous noise from around them. I, and others who struggle the same way, do not have this filter, or it disappears in times of stress.
My main trigger is ‘social noise’ such as chatter and movement all around me. Nature noises and music rarely bother me, and I can manage lovely long walks out with my kids or Action The Cave Dog stress free (apart from dealing with *his* usual twattery), and last year surprised myself managing at a Queen tribute at a local club. I even danced, although thankfully no footage exists of this since I move with all the grace of a bull elephant, shoved into a tutu and in heels. However, town, supermarkets, or anywhere crowded represent sheer hell for me. My worst moments are unexpected loud noises like bangs or sirens, or the worst of all, those horrible blenders they use in Costas. I literally flinch like I’m being hit or threatened at these, and I tend to bury one of my ears into my shoulder to try and, at least partially, block it out. With general social noise it happens more like a crescendo. Initially I will be fine if I am feeling ok, but as I become tired or if I am unwell, the additional sounds begin to filter in gradually. I will become more and more aware of the static white noise around me, resolving into distinct noises. It’s very hard to talk to somebody in Costa for example, when you can hear the footsteps of the people walking in, coats being taken on and off, cups and spoons clinking, laughter and general chatter (and usually the words of the conversation – I would make a great spy), chairs scraping, food wrappers rustling, food being chewed loudly,(a general hatred of mine anyway, sitting with a loud chewer is a good alibi for murder as far as I am concerned), all interspersed with frequent loud hisses from the coffee maker and that *godawful* blender.
I usually refer to this noise hypersensitivity as ‘the world’s sh*ttest superpower. Spidey can swing through the city, Superman has immense strength, Wolverine has those kick ass claws – yet me? I can hear someone taking a leak 3 doors away. I can’t help feeling I was very cheated. As the crescendo reaches it’s peak it physically hurts me, I feel like I am being battered around the face and head and my fight or flight reflex usually kicks in because my heart is racing. Noticeable signs are me becoming distracted, looking around the room at various noises, usually with a one of my patented death-stares, and possibly lifting my shoulder up towards my ear or becoming jumpy. I’m also very sensory about the touch of my clothes, which makes me an awful fidget at the best of times but can often block it out if I’m not, tired, uncomfortable, or overwhelmed. So if noise is overwhelming me I will also become more aware of this, leading to me to twist around because of my waistband, mess around with the cloth under my armpits and, if I can manage it surreptitiously enough, tug and adjust my bra. Its like the worst version of the cha-cha ever seen in history. At this point it’s usually a good idea to get somewhere quieter as I’m on my way to full blown anxiety. If I can’t leave and I’m alone I will usually plug in music, if I am with people I have been known to ask my husband to cover my ears for me or zone out into a breathing technique as shutting down or escaping is my only defence.
Noise aside, light and crowds bother me a lot. In a supermarket, when I am struggling, the aisles seem to stretch away from me like they plastercine that has been stretched between somebody’s hands, and are lined with lots of blurry orbs of light. From here people in the crowd will emerge as if they are walking straight at me, even if they aren’t. This can feel really threatening and make me hyper alert. The anxiety in my chest will make the air thick, like breathing in smog. I’m usually not even aware of this happening until I get somewhere where I can take a cold, soothing breath or two and clear it all out of my chest. I cope EXTREMELY badly with being pushed and jostled, it’s usually all I can do not to lash out. In my younger days I’ve had friends take me off a dance floor or away from a club…for the safety of others. Luckily now this problem is solved these days as I am the world’s most boring, tee-total, anti-social, night-out-social-function-avoiding hermit crab. I pretty much have to be frog marched to weddings by someone with a suit, cummerband and taser. I understand that people probably find me moody or miserable, and may not understand that I’m not avoiding my loved ones, friends, and extended company because I don’t like being around them, but because the sensory toll of large groups or functions is enormous, and can leave me exhausted, both mentally and physically, for days. I would love to be a social butterfly, and deeply appreciate all invites, but I’m less of a butterfly and more of some permanently mardy form of burrowing beetle.
In the next blog I am going to discuss some techniques for sensory soothing, including making a sensory toolkit and, if my little Monkey will assist me later, may be able to provide a video blog showing some of the techniques and equipment we use in our house to manage sensory overload and help with regulation. Until then, Merry Christmas and may it be a soothing one without overload.