Understanding autism
Understanding autism

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Understanding autism

3.3 Unusual sensory responses

For many people on the autism spectrum, sensory information (received via eyes, ears, touch etc.) evokes either stronger or reduced responses compared to neurotypical individuals. For instance, autistic people may dislike fluorescent lighting because they can perceive the flicker. This dislike can be so intense that they will refuse to enter a room with that type of lighting. They may need labels cut off clothes as they find the sensation unbearably irritating. One of the reasons Temple Grandin gives for wearing her distinctive cowboy-style shirts is that they are made in very soft cotton, the only texture she says she can tolerate next to the skin. Such accentuated reactions are known as sensory hypersensitivity.

Described image
Figure 4 Temple Grandin wearing one of her soft cotton cowboy shirts.

Profound aversion to the taste or smell of particular foods is also common, and yet some autistic children seem to crave particular tastes such as sugar. Similarly, when it comes to sound, one person may find the noise of traffic in the street unbearable, but another may seem immune to the noise. Apparently lowered responsivity to sensory stimuli is known as sensory hyposensitivity. For instance, an autistic person may tolerate or enjoy the sound of vacuum cleaners, or heavy metal music played at exceptionally high volume, oblivious to the disagreeable effect on others, or the possible damage to their own hearing. The pattern of these sensory differences may also change over time.

Listen to this clip of Arabella, mother of Iris Grace, discussing how Iris Grace’s sensory responses fluctuate and change over time.

Download this video clip.Video player: boc_aut_1_video_week2_3_arabella.mp4
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ARABELLA:
The senses seem to fluctuate. So she would at one time love water. So it would all be about water. She wants to watch water, touch it, feel the surface beneath her fingers, sort of of the water. And then suddenly, that will change. It's like a flick of a switch. Suddenly, water was almost like it was burning her and it was painful.
And other things as well like clothes. At first, when she was a baby, she would never have anything sort of on her top. Trying to swaddle her like you would traditionally swaddle a baby would be impossible. And she always wants her arms free and to not have any fabric on her arms. And the same with socks. (LAUGHING) She hated socks.
So it was just how she felt the world. It was how her skin felt with different surfaces. And it just became something that caused a lot of problems. I mean, in the winter in England, not being clothe your baby is hard. You get a lot of disapproving looks when you go down the street and your kid's sort of-- it's freezing weather, and no socks on and some little tiny top (LAUGHING) and everything.
But she got over various things over time, and life moves on. But you then have to go with the flow with there'll be a new thing. There'll be a new sensory thing that we have to sort of get used to and help her through.
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