Sensory Processing

To quote the above video: “It really isn’t just a headache. But the symptoms and effects of *** are widely misunderstood.” “Light can be painful, noise can be very irritating.”

There aren’t many things that this could be in reference to. In fact the entire podcast is about something entirely different, the similarities just cannot be ignored. These things are widely accepted and understood through the general populace, but if you place these symptoms in the context of something else it becomes a very taboo subject and implies very serious negative connotations.

A sensitivity to noise or to light, a feeling of nausea or light-headedness, an inability to concentrate or to reason. Why are these acceptable in terms of one condition but not another? Why are we shunned for something we cannot possibly control?

In a world centred around the neurotypical person, autistics face a multitude of issues. Personally, the most prominent of these is sensory overload. The previous video from the BBC is about migraines, and how chronic sufferers of these go about their daily lives. Migraines are a commonplace thing, with some people experiencing up to 20 a month. They are considered normal within society, many people are allowed off work or school because of them. They are also very similar to how an autistic person feels during sensory overload and the shutdown that follows.

Sensory overload occurs when an environment contains too much information for an autistic brain to process, especially when said brain is already pre-occupied with trying to navigate the minefield of social interaction or interpreting emotions. Often this environmental information can be spotted and avoided, I myself am susceptible to noise. Busy and loud high streets can be a struggle. Repetitive noises such as a dripping tap can be infuriating. Even the mere sound of someone eating can be enough to push me over the edge.

During shutdowns many autistics become non-speaking, whereby they physically cannot speak. I am not willing to speak for the entire autistic community but during these times I have found I am capable of communicating using technology, or through simple hand gestures, but not through verbal means. Our awareness of our surroundings can go two ways at this point: either we close down our sensory range to that which is in front of us (minimising the input we’re receiving) or we become hypersensitive to everything around us (noticing every tiny detail).

You often cannot tell when an autistic person is in shutdown, I know a lot of us do our best to mask it and appear ‘normal’. This is detrimental to our mental health, as well as being incredibly exhausting. Those that know us well will start to pick up on offensive sensory environments, and eventually be able to tell when our brains are incapable of receiving any more information. I’d like to make a strong note that once we are in shutdown, there is nothing you can do to take us out of it. Do not take this personally. Remove us from the over-stimulating environment (whether physically or by employing devices such as noise cancelling headphones) and allow us time to recover. During these periods we can outwardly appear fine, do not take this as an indication of what is going on internally. I have had repeated comments of “you should smile more” or “stop being so moody” whilst being in shutdown, especially during my un-diagnosed years. In reality I was simply in a room surrounded by far too many people making far too much noise.

There are other ways to communicate that do not involve talking and even if you have to wait for the person to return to a neutral state, they will best know how you can help them. No autistic person is the same, just like no ‘normal’ person is the same. Do not assume that because you know one person, or have read an article online, that you know best how to help someone. Nobody knows how to cope as much as someone that has lived with something their entire life, be open with them and you may find that they already have well established mechanisms for dealing with any and all situations.

I do not intend for this to undermine the experience of anyone who does have migraines, merely to compare the situations and highlight the differences between them in modern society.

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