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  • Nicky Collins

Sensory Processing From An Adults Perspective

Sensory processing is a big challenge for autistic and neurodiverse people, lights can be blinding, sound can be excruciatingly painful, a heightened sense of smell can make things like shopping a very unpleasant and nauseating experience, clothes can feel restrictive, they’re called tights for a reason right? The labels in clothing can feel like a cactus is rubbing against your skin, textures can feel horrible which can make eating food a sensory nightmare, fussy eating isn’t so fussy when you stop to think about how it all works, I’m sure everyone has at some point smelt something so strongly they can taste it, if it’s a bad smell would you eat it? If something feels unpleasant to the touch would you then pick it up and place it in your mouth?

The senses go way beyond the traditional five that we are taught about. There are senses for senses, senses that tell us when we’re hungry, when we’re too hot or too cold, senses that tell us when something in our environment isn’t right, the sixth sense of intuition that we’re never taught to tune into.

I was recently talking to a lady called Thora, for her sound and visual input are the largest sensory challenges. Whilst she is able to tune out most sounds, she has recognised that she does this in levels. Level one is sound on and level two is sound off where she either tunes out all sounds or she hears everything - there is no in between. She spends most of her day tuning everything out and has to turn on her hearing manually otherwise she won’t hear a word you’re saying to her. You could be right next to her and all she will hear is a muffled mumble that doesn’t register as sound, until there’s a sharp sound or they get in her visual field. That’s when she’ll ask, “oh are you talking to me?” You need to get her attention before speaking to her so she knows that it’s her you’re communicating with.

Thora’s visual input has no regulation whatsoever. She can’t be in a place that has lots of bright lighting and she can’t be arounds a lot of movement, because her brain doesn’t filter any of it out. The part of the brain that filters out unimportant information, the part that allows you to put aside unnecessary or unimportant information, doesn’t work in a typical way. Absolutely everything gets processed, which means that every visual stimulus merges together unfiltered. As everything in Thora’s brain means something, then each and every one of these movements has meaning all at once. Thora needs to be in a visually calm environment and doesn’t have a coping mechanism in place for things like shopping. She’ll do her best to avoid the situation and the only work around that’s guaranteed to help with this is to ask her husband to go for her.

Interestingly, Thora can drive perfectly safely. It’s like there’s a different part of her brain that is set aside for the ability to drive and it’s almost useful for her to have so much visual information which is all focused on the same thing - her safety. It’s as if all of this visual input is being processed through the filter of her needing to be safe in her vehicle, so she can’t hurt herself or others around her, which works out pretty well.

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