Just How Sensitive Are Autistic People?
Autism is a complex neurobiological disorder that affects many people in different ways. One of the most common symptoms connected to autism is what is known as sensory sensitivities. Sensory sensitivities are often associated with behaviors typical of autism, though experts disagree on whether or not these sensitivities cause the behaviors or if they are caused by them. Some experts contend that autistic children have hyper-sensitive senses while others believe their senses are hypo-sensitive. Autism experts also debate over whether to apply the label of “autism” to an adult who has been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, pointing out that someone could be both autistic and Asperger’s simultaneously. Autism itself is not “curable,” though there are various therapies and treatments designed to ameliorate the symptoms.
Sensory sensitivities often include atypical responses to what many of us consider benign stimuli, such as noises that most people do not seem to mind or fabrics that some people love to wear against their skin. A person on the autism spectrum might also be very sensitive to smells, preferring unperfumed soaps and detergents, for example. They may also recoil from certain foods because they taste too intensely, even if others find those foods pleasant tasting. Sudden changes in lighting can be extremely disturbing for autistic people—even a slight change in light or heavy cloud cover is bothersome—while some autistic individuals report that the feel of water running over their skin is actually painful. It can be heartbreaking to see an autistic child suffering from sensory sensitivity, and adults with autism might experience similar feelings to these children when they become overwhelmed by sensory input.
The term “sensory sensitivities” refers to a general set of symptoms rather than any one specific condition such as tactile defensiveness, meaning that an individual may be sensitive to things like scratchy fabrics or loud noises but not necessarily odors or strong flavors. Not all people who are autistic exhibit these kinds of atypical responses to what we think of as normal stimuli: indeed, some autistic people seem indifferent to pain and temperature and certain other sense modalities. This has led scientists and psychologists working in the field to postulate that autistic individuals actually have either hyper- or hypo-sensitive senses, and there is some evidence to support this theory.
For example, lean people—and especially anorexic women—have been found to respond with a high degree of sensitivity when exposed to certain odors such as those given off by apples and cheese. You may not be able to see it, but these smells cause the part of the brain that registers hunger to light up in scans, which means that for some people, these particular scents evoke a strong response. Autistic children seem to be more sensitive than non-autistic children in their responses when they are presented with various stimuli: they also appear to “tune out” sounds and sights that other people register automatically. They may also “zone in” on specific noises or stimuli much more than their peers do.
A study conducted by the National Autistic Society (NAS) showed that autistic children were not only much more sensitive to certain sounds but also found loud noises physically painful to endure, which neurotypical children seemed to be able to tolerate with greater ease. It was noted that these children were not necessarily distressed by soothing background noise such as a ticking clock: it might have been the sudden and unexpected intensity of a sound like a slamming door or a fire engine’s siren blaring nearby that was so unbearable for them. Boys seemed to be more sensitive than girls when it came to auditory input, though all of the children reported that their pain threshold was significantly higher than normal. That is to say; they could endure sounds that would normally be considered unpleasant for longer periods of time than kids without autism.
There is some research showing that autistic people are actually might show lower levels of sensitivity to painful stimuli through the opposite has also been suggested with other studies suggesting that autistic people feel more physical pain than non-autistic individuals. However, all neurotypical people seem to be far more sensitive to irritants like harsh fabrics or odors than those who are on the spectrum, so there may not necessarily be an advantage in feeling certain types of discomfort more intensely; they just experience it differently. The only way you will ever know someone is autistic or at least showing signs of the condition is by talking to them and observing their behavior: they may actually appear completely indifferent or even enjoy sensory stimulants like loud music.
There are certain types of stimming behaviors that might be considered self-destructive when you look at them through a neurotypical lens but seem quite natural in an autistic person, such as lining up toys into rows, spinning items like pencils or car keys around on a tabletop, or obsessively flapping one’s hands for no clear reason. If we agree with the theory that there is hypersensitivity and hypo-sensitivity in autism spectrum disorders, perhaps behaviors like these help regulate levels of stimulation and help control where and how intensely it hits the central nervous system.
It seems that autistic people might be, on the whole, both hyper- and hypo-sensitive to certain stimuli in different sense modalities. Neurotypical people, on the other hand, seem to generally be more sensitive than their peers when it comes to discomfort and irritants. This suggests that autism does affect whether or not a person is hypersensitive or hypersensitive across all sensory experiences, but we cannot make sweeping statements about how every individual with autism perceives and responds to various types of input because they are unique like everyone else. Only by talking to an autistic friend, relative, or colleague can you discern exactly where their personal thresholds lie within the general population (or if they even show signs which indicate their status).