Senses – a challenge for autists


Senses – a real challenge for autists (autistic people). Summer’s day. I am outside, wearing a cap and sunglasses, just to cope. Without these I might be in discomfort or pain. Why? I am autistic. Autistic people can be over or under sensitive to the environmental senses. I cannot understand how people can wander around in the bright sun, without any protection, whereas I can struggle in afternoon winter sun.

They can cause pain and stress to autistic people, either directly from how they affect them, or people’s response to their reactions. In a way not clear to others, due to how the brains see the world. And these reactions can vary, sometimes for no clear reason.

It can affect performance too, possibly leading to meltdown or shutdown, for no apparent reason, possibly a build-up of stress. Brushing over this is not helpful. Filtering out distractions can be tiring.

Question – how many senses are there? Easy. 5 – Sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. Yes these can cause sensitivity stress to autistic people.  

I have been accused of deliberately spoiling photos by squinting when the sun is coming directly into my eyes, told to keep them open. The reality – my eyes have tears of pain, trying to keep them open. Simple solution – count to 3, and take the photo. I will open them at the count of 3. 

That’s fine. But how about the other 3, plus and another unusual sensation experienced by many. What am I talking about? 

The 3 others are unknowingly experienced by many, but can cause autistic people problems. They are:

  • Vestibular – balance, sense of body in space. This can be the reason autistic people move around. 
  • Proprioception – input, knowing where we are and what we are doing, where are body parts are without looking, the muscles.
  • Interoception – internal – knowing what is happening inside our bodies, ie emotions, internal state (hunger, tiredness, and changes internally).

And now for the mystery one, the confusing one: 

Synaesthesia. Where senses come in as one, and are experienced as another. Just some examples – a name is heard, but experienced as a colour, a word is read, experienced as a taste. One person could not bear 2 and 7 being next to each other. And they were different colours.  

My experience – I look at a ball of wool with a certain texture, and I feel I can’t handle it. I see/feel in my head what food goes/doesn’t go together without seeing the food.

So how could this fit into work?

C – Communication

The environment can affect communication, triggering responses, or lack of that can be hard to explain.

Meltdowns/ Shutdowns – not sulking or tantrums, but communicating overwhelm. Sometimes it just may be the final trigger that sets off the results.

Not saying how we feel – we may just not know how to express it. Possibly going numb, need to find a way to express it, not initially to others. I had to find to process the death of Queen Elizabeth.

Responses may be major or minor. Giving time or asking questions helps, as does accepting a lack of or limited responses. 

R – Reasonable adjustments

These help an autistic person to be able to work to their best, which is unique to them.

Seating location – desk location relative to light sources, areas of noise and movement can be hard to filter. Sitting by windows, away from corridors, wearing tinted glasses has helped me.

Space – to move around if necessary, to rebalance, move our muscles. This for me burns off energy.

This results in less stress, more focus, and better work.

E – Executive Functions

It is important to be able to process ideas, not easy when stressed.

Tiring – it can be tiring to filter out distractions. Allow time to have time out. Sometimes just a walk helps clears the mind. 

Quiet area – a special place to go, relax, control the environment. I can enjoy listening to relaxing music with calming images or silence.

These systems, or other approached will help calm thoughts, and changing jobs.

A – Attitudes of others

Not everyone reacts the same to the environment around them and how much or little it affects the senses. 

Experiences are not the same for all – accept that your experience of the senses are not the same as those of autistic people. Do not judge it.

Understand how to help – having consulted with the person, what affects them, adjust as required.  

Be flexible, non-judgemental and open, accept the person, and any reactions, and work with them. This will build trust and communication.

M – Moving on

Once you understand how someone works you can then provide extra support.

Mentor – a go to person, non judgemental, to provide advice when needed, to a safe space.

Training – provide training where there are elements of challenge for the person, and training for team members.

Once the challenges caused the senses, and trying to explain them is understood both ways an easier environment can be created, helping organisations and staff to grow together.

Final comments

The senses can lead to stress or overwhelm, affecting communications and unexpected reactions. Understanding this, at work, home and school, or any environment will help autistic people to be able to fit in, relax and be themselves. And contribute fully.