January 17, 2021

Autistic children’s sensory experiences

By rosieweldon

Autistic people’s sensory experiences are a huge factor of our overall life experience. To live in a world that is loud, bright, itchy, smelly and downright overwhelming will obviously take its toll on us.

Far before reaching sensory overload or meltdown it will grind at us. Maybe I’m sat in a meeting and the chair is itchy. A good 10% of my brain power is now going to controlling my response to this uncomfortable chair. If the office has a funny smell – I’m trying not to wince at the smell and instead hold a neutral expression. Effort. Mental exertion. All the time. Over things most people aren’t consciously aware of.

As an autistic adult this is easier to deal with as I have control over my decisions. I wear the same T-shirt underneath all my work shirts – no one can tell me not to. I cook the same foods – no one can tell me not to. I don’t use bleach – no one can make me.

However, for autistic children it breaks my heart to think of experiences being invalidated. When someone tells you, they are experiencing something a certain way, the worst thing to do is say, directly or indirectly, ‘no you’re not’. Sounds ridiculous? Let’s see if you’ve ever witnessed any of these:

Person A: ‘It’s so hot in here’
Person B: ‘No it’s not! I’m freezing!’

Well good for you Person B. But you being cold doesn’t change the fact that Person A is hot.

Person A: ‘The TV is on really loud’
Person B: ‘No it’s not! I can barely hear it!’

Getting the point? We do it all the time. It doesn’t do much harm between two neurotypical people. But let’s take it a step further:

Person A, autistic: ‘This towel hurts!’
Person B, not autistic: ‘No it doesn’t. It’s really soft!’

Hmm, that’s a bit more problematic, huh? It doesn’t matter how soft it is to Person B. It is hurting Person A. When it comes to our sensory input you have to believe us at our word. Non-autistic people do not know what it is like to live in a world of heightened senses. To feel sick at the smell of a cleaning product or want to scratch at your skin from the brush of a label. You have to believe your child at their word when they discuss sensory discomforts. 

Throughout every day I experience what I call ‘sensory bashing’. No matter what else I am up against that day, I always contend with that ‘sensory bashing’. From bright lights, to cars going passed, to someone brushing passed me, it is constant.

Before you even ask us to contend with a communication challenge or a change in routine – we are already battling constant sensory issues. I know this about myself. That is why I do everything to enable a sensory friendly atmosphere in my own home. There is absolutely no point facing battles I don’t need to. Removing the sensory battles enables me to use the mental energy for other things.  

Just yesterday I stood in the lounge with my mum and stepdad and was thrown off by a noise that I was struggling to ignore. I tried to point it out to them – they couldn’t hear it.

Them not hearing it does not mean it’s not there. Please understand that your experience of the world (if you are not autistic), is nothing like ours.

If you are a parent this means accepting your child’s word that those biscuits taste different even though it’s the exact same brand you bought last week. Even though they taste the same to you.

Trust me your life will be a lot easier if the first battle isn’t to doubt the experience. Make the first battle one stood by their side and trying to find a sensory solution.

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