Most autistic people have sensory differences. Our senses include touch, taste, smell, hearing, and sight but also our balance (vestibular), awareness of our body parts and how they are moving (proprioception) and awareness of our internal body signals (interoception).
Autistic individuals’ senses can be intensified (hyper) or reduced (hypo) in all these areas. This can also differ at different times for some people. Everyone’s experience is just that – individual – so whilst one person might seek out and enjoy a particular experience, that same experience would be another person’s worst nightmare.
Scroll down to read about each sense and find resources relating to them.
Over/hypersensitivity to touch can cause extreme distress. It could be the touch of others, certain textures or substances or the feel of clothing on your skin. Certain types of touch such as light may be more problematic too. Being under/hypo sensitive to touch may mean that you don’t report an injury as you don’t feel the initial impact or the subsequent pain. This also links in to interoception.
Who has experienced a supermarket or brand changing the recipe of a ‘safe’ food? There is nothing worse for someone who is oversensitive to taste. You might only be able to tolerate the same brand and can pick up the slightest difference in taste. You may also crave bland foods. Those who are under-sensitive to taste may crave strong flavours and be much more adventurous with food.
Over/hyper- sensitivity to certain smells can make some situations intolerable. You may find certain smells offensive and are overwhelmed by them. Although it does have it’s advantages too as you may be able to detect smells such as smoke before others which could save a life. If you find you seek out certain smells or crave specific olfactory stimuli you are likely under or hypo sensitive to smell.
Oversensitivity to auditory stimuli may mean you find certain sounds painful, have difficulty when two or more people are talking or be unable to screen out irrelevant or background noise. If you seek out specific or loud sounds you may primarily be under/hypo sensitive.
If you are over sensitive to visual stimuli you may notice patterns and detail and be overwhelmed by things like bright or flickering lights. Under/hypo sensitivity may mean you seek out certain stimuli like flashing lights.
The vestibular system includes the parts of the inner ear and brain that process the sensory information involved with controlling balance and eye movements. Over sensitivity can result in motion sickness or feeling dizzy on uneven ground, whereas under sensitivity may mean an individual seeks out body movements like swinging, bouncing or spinning.
Proprioception is our body awareness system and tells us where our bodies are in space, where we start and end and how different body parts are moving. It is known as our calming sensory system and can help us self-regulate by using activities designed to assist in controlling responses to sensory stimuli.
Interoception allows us to feel our internal organs and skin so we know when we are hungry, angry, tired, or need to go to the toilet. Differences in interoception mean that these signals are more difficult to intercept or are not recognised at all, leading to challenges in knowing how you feel, which can therefore affect self-regulation too.