By Katherine Lycke, M.Ed/Ed.S, Marriage and Family Therapist Intern
Imagine for a moment waking up to a bird chirping outside your window. Now mentally turn up the volume of that chirp 3-5x, to the point of sounding like a school fire alarm. Your eyes suddenly open to a bright room, except the brightness is so alarming to your system you immediately slam your eyes shut. Feeling motivated to escape the shrill chirping sound still being emitted from the bird, you throw back the covers and place your feet on the wood floor beneath your bed, however the cool temperature of the wood feels like dozens of ice cubes shocking your skin.
Welcome to a sneak peek into what a hyper-aroused sensory system someone with Autism Spectrum disorder could be experience on a daily, constant basis.
What Sensory Overload Feels Like
Sound a little like a bad dream? Having a sensory system turned up too loud or turned down too soft is just an aspect of what being on the spectrum is like constantly. In proper terms, a part of Autism Spectrum Disorder is having a nervous system that struggles to process sensory information from the eight, (yes eight), senses of the body and the body’s responses to these challenges can present as atypical.
So not only is someone on the spectrum having to cope with difficulties socially, mentally, physically, and emotionally, but also having to cope with constant and sometimes all too fast input into their following senses:
- auditory (hearing)
- tactile (touch)
- olfactory (smell)
- gustatory (taste)
- vestibular (movement)
- proprioception (input from muscles)
- and interoception (internal sensors regarding physiological states)
Increase Your Autism Awareness
The vivid imagery of living with a nervous system that struggles to define what sensory input to block out, and what to amplify on a constant basis can be hard to swallow. However, given the beginning of Autism Awareness Month, I want to shed light on how immensely brave and resilient those with Autism truly are, and that means not sugar-coating their truths.
Sensory systems are complex and someone can have a mix of hyper and hypoactive systems. Someone with a hyperactive tactile sense can become motion sick easily, feel as if the tags in their clothes or the seams in their socks will rub through their bodies in 5 seconds flat, or only feel grounded wearing one type of clothing. The same person could have a hypoactive vestibular system and seek out deep pressure to feel grounded, give hugs with force, and bang their heads when burdened with uncomfortable emotions.
Helping Your Child Cope With Sensory Issues
While working with those on the spectrum, I focus heavily on developing coping skills that engage the senses, however the vestibular system in particular. The vestibular system is tied to how we interpret safety, gravity, attention, and arousal. Simply put, the vestibular system is the main controller in our fight or flight response. When this system is hyper or hypo-aroused, the brain has a difficult time letting the body know when it is safe. Thus, whenever we feel emotional unregulated (uncomfortable emotions are simply overwhelming, sometimes making us feel paralyzed), engaging in activities that engage the vestibular system can give input to communicate to the brain “hey you’re safe” thus providing a grounding experience.
When anger takes over either yourself or someone with Autism, I encourage you to do some wall push-ups, have push- wars (go hand in hand with a person and push as hard as you can), chew spicy or sour gum, fidget with putty or slime, go sprint, or go lay under a weighted blanket. These activities engage the vestibular system that could be dysregulated, thus providing your body with input to soothe the emotional turmoil swirling beneath the surface. Whenever we are completely and utterly overwhelmed by emotion, it can be extremely difficult to use mental coping skills or helpful thoughts until you are more regulated and centered. Having coping skills that take minimal thought can help your body help your mind.
Pretty neat huh?