I’m sat at my desk at work. Outside the lorries have been reversing non-stop since 8am. Each “beep beep beep” sends an arrow of pain and shock straight into my chest whilst simultaneously burning my eyes and ears. I can hear my colleagues laughing and joking in the corridor outside, completely oblivious to my pain and to the lorries. I don’t want to go and see them because the tsunami of perfume and aftershave mixed with the sudden change in brightness when I leave my dark room for the fluorescently lit corridor will hit me so hard it will almost wind me. And their voices will get even louder, and the laughter will hurt my ears and make me jump and sound like someone chucking a bag full of spanners into a washing machine on spin cycle.
But it’s ok. I stay where I am, hyperalert and shivering at the thought of someone opening the door to my office to see me. If they do, I will need to quickly whack my mask of normality on, and pretend all is well – and nod my head and make eye contact and fight the urge to hide under my desk and sob. If I am lucky I will still be able to speak but will probably say something a bit awkward or slightly out of place as my overloaded brain tries to coordinate thoughts into spoken language.
I’ve tried to tell people how my world is. Some doctors thought I was mentally ill. Some colleagues thought I was unsociable. Teachers thought I was lazy, distracted or not trying. Some friends thought I was weird. Some partners assumed I was overreacting. I always knew I was different but couldn’t quite say why – if I wasn’t an alien; and it wasn’t pathological; it couldn’t have been spiritual, then what was it?
The trouble is this is my reality every single day. All day. It is not an overreaction. It is not an exaggeration. It fluctuates so can be difficult for myself or others to anticipate.
This is how my sensory processing works. Nothing more, nothing less. Simple. My sensory processing system works differently to the majority of peoples.
Why is my sensory processing different?
Again, the answer is relatively straightforward. I am autistic. I was born with a sensory processing system that works differently to other peoples.
My earliest hospital notes refer to how I would not feed or would feed very slowly and if someone persevered with my bottle of milk, I would typically fall asleep whilst being fed.
Roll on 47 years and I am still the last to finish my meal. A few weeks ago, I was discussing this with a friend who is far more knowledgeable about sensory processing than me. We were both eating an apple and I discovered that I have a completely different awareness of sensations in my mouth than she does. I can feel food on my lips and the tip of my tongue, and then again as I swallow, but in the centre of my mouth I have almost no sensation. This means that when I eat I feel very stressed because I never know when food is going to reach the back of my mouth. I frequently gag and I am highly anxious about eating because swallowing often comes as a surprise and catches me out. My awareness of how my body feels is muted.
This is quite different to how my hearing works. My brain tends to process sounds as very loud and harsh. Some people may refer to this as hypersensitivity. Whereas my brain processes sensations in my body as quite muted. Hyposensitive interoception you might say. These terms are all well and good for clinicians who are not autistic – they tend to feel comfortable using their sensory experiences as the “norm” and measure my experiences as “too much” or “too little”. My normal is different though and always has been.
This experience with my friend and the apple helped me understand more about how my sensory system works. Interestingly I was yawning non-stop by the end of our focused fruit eating session, and I did have a lie down and sleep afterwards. This is very typical of how a human being’s nervous system works when we are in danger. Fight, flight, or freeze. My parasympathetic nervous system responded to my stress and I couldn’t help but crash out for an hour or two. Just like I did as that tiny baby who felt distress at having something in her mouth from the moment she was born.
My reactions to certain sensory information are totally proportional to what my brain is processing. It is logical to run away from danger, or fight if your life is being threatened. Completely normal to freeze if you are terrified, or collapse and disconnect if everything is too overwhelming.
The difference between myself and someone who experiences eating an apple as mundane; or laughing colleagues as insignificant; or reversing lorries as mildly irritating at the most – is the way our sensory processing systems work. My brain processes those sounds and sensations differently to the other person I have just described. My brain gears my body up for action or inaction because it perceives a threat that the other person does not.
My reactions are normal for me. Their reactions are normal for them.
I have always been like this because I am autistic, and for me this is how my sensory processing system works. It is not a choice; it is part of my neurology. Other autistic people have their own sensory processing experiences because we are not just made up of our neurology, we have our physiology; our life histories with all their joys and traumas; our individual personalities; and our own psychologies, capabilities and characters.
Each of us perceives the world differently. To me, a vacuum cleaner may be a terrifying source of noise that looms towards me, spewing its musty, dusty smell and roaring like a belligerent dragon. To you it may be an innocuous piece of cleaning equipment whose only fault is it takes up too much room in the cupboard under the stairs! I understand perfectly well what it is for. I’m certainly not scared of it and I absolutely don’t feel any emotions towards vacuum cleaners in any form – positive or negative – they are vacuum cleaners for goodness sake!
For me, this piece of equipment causes me great distress because of the effect it has upon my senses. For you it is fine. We both see the same item, understand its intended function in the same way, but our relationship with it is very different. It causes me pain in my ears and makes my body react as if I am being attacked… It cleans your carpet.
There is no right and wrong in this situation. We perceive things differently. A bit of mutual understanding can go a long way. So can a bit of common courtesy. I wouldn’t do something that hurt you, so please don’t do something that hurts me. I cannot desensitise myself to this, its how my body works.
Of course, many of us grow up assuming our perception of the world is shared. I didn’t know that most people don’t have to have their food arranged in a certain way because vinegar or sauce touching bread would require the whole meal to be thrown away due to the unbearable texture created when bread gets damp. You may find that outrageously picky and assume I am spoilt or attention seeking. You may assume that everyone finds the smell of perfume enjoyable (they don’t!) or that everyone likes to look at spreadsheets on a computer (believe me I can’t!) or that brushing your hair is easy (some days, it really, really isn’t!).
My reactions to sensory information may well appear unusual to you. But for me they are logical and proportional.
Spending my day to day life in anticipation of what distressing sensory experiences may happen next takes a toll on my health and wellbeing. It is not healthy to spend my life in an activated state, hyperalert because I am scanning for latent danger. The ordinary activities that happen frequently throughout the day are an unavoidable potential source of trauma for me. And maybe people won’t understand when I demonstrate how distressing they are – perhaps they will think I am overreacting or have challenging behaviour. Maybe they will pathologise my reactions and mislabel them or not even believe me at all.
My experience of the world and the way I react to it has impacted on how I am perceived by others; how they have responded towards me and how that has affected our ongoing relationships. It made me more vulnerable to other types of adverse life events and left me growing up without a sense of agency. I was left invalidated and unheard.
I’m not the only one…
Autistic people have been describing their sensory differences for a long, long time. Blogs, interviews, and personal testimonies are filled with evidence of sensory differences and the effects these have on autistic people. Autism and trauma are discussed together frequently. They can manifest in similar ways and be difficult to tell apart. Being autistic increases vulnerability to trauma – of course it does! Being in a minority in a neurotypically biased world where your differences are perceived as deficits is not a good starting point for anyone.
But there is more to it than that…
The way I perceive the world through my senses is in itself traumatic. Repeatedly experiencing unavoidable pain every day that makes my body react as if it is in mortal danger is traumatic. Not being believed is traumatic. On top of all the trauma I have experienced due to the impact of my autism and the adverse life events that I have been through, I have experienced trauma since birth. Perhaps even before birth. This is sensory trauma.
Sensory Trauma has been hidden in plain sight for a long time. It is time to start some conversations about this lived experience of autistic people. It is time to be listened to. At Autism Wellbeing we have prepared a position paper about Sensory Trauma and made a short video about it.
I would like to hear other peoples experiences of sensory trauma. We are publishing our book soon and are interested in feedback on our position paper.
Our position paper has been published by ourselves at Autism Wellbeing because we want it to be read as widely as possible. It has only just been made available – please leave a review on amazon if you decide to buy it. You can purchase the position paper here:
For USA based people please use https://www.amazon.com/Sensory-Trauma-DIFFERENCE-EXPERIENCE-Wellbeing-ebook/dp/B08JKW5H1N/ref=mp_s_a_1_2?dchild=1&keywords=Sensory+trauma+autism+sensory+differences&qid=1601370659&sr=8-2