October has many ‘awareness days’ and is ‘awareness month’ for several things that are of specific interest to me because of them being related to Penguin in one way or another. I already mentioned in my post on the first day of this month about it being AAC Awareness Month, which is highly relevant to us as Penguin is non-verbal (AAC is all about alternative communication solutions of various kinds).
This month is also ADHD Awareness Month as well as Sensory Awareness Month. The latter is mainly in the US as yet, but as the web is worldwide there’s no real reason to put a geographical limitation on it, especially as no other country or region seems to have an alternative Sensory Awareness Month. Unfortunately there isn’t really a united effort around Sensory Awareness Month, and some call it Sensory Processing Awareness Month, some SPD Awareness Month, and a few prefer using the term sensory integration rather than processing. A unifying hashtag would have been a great start!
This week is Dyspraxia Awareness Week (6-12 Oct), and as dyspraxia can be seen as a subtype of sensory processing disorder, this seems a good a time as any to share some of the things I’ve learnt about sensory processing so far, on our ‘journey’ with Penguin.
Just to clarify, Penguin doesn’t actually have a separate diagnosis of SPD (Sensory Processing Disorder), but it is part of his autism. Not everyone with SPD is autistic, but a significant majority of people who are autistic have sensory processing issues of some kind, to some extent. In our Penguin’s case, I see his sensory processing differences as absolutely central to his autism, as well as his learning differences and developmental delays.
I thought I’ll give you a few examples of what sensory processing issues can look like, based mainly around our own experiences but also including other variations as well as general facts about sensory processing. To do this, I’ll go through each of our 8 senses in turn (we all learn about 5 senses at school, don’t we? But there’s more to it, as you’ll see…), and I’m splitting this post into two, focusing on our five most commonly mentioned senses in this first part, and then following on (tomorrow) with another post about our three less familiar senses, as well as some general conclusions. So, here goes:
1. Auditory (Hearing)
For many, this is probably the first sensory difference they think of when it comes to autism. Bad reactions to loud noises, and persons wearing noise-cancelling headphones, are quite common in depictions of autism. Sensory processing differences aren’t always about being over-sensitive though. Sometimes it’s the opposite, with a person craving certain sensory stimuli, and often it’s a mix of both. And for some it’s not about seeking or avoiding sensory input, but rather about difficulties is processing input in a useful way.
So, to give a few examples of how auditory processing differences affects Penguin:
He is generally okay with sounds and won’t wear headphones (doesn’t like the feel of them, which is another sensory issue). When he was very little, before we knew he was autistic, he’d react very badly to the sound of a person blowing their nose, and also the sound of anyone using cellotape. He’s still quite sensitive to the sound of the hoover, and not keen on drills and electric whisks. He will occassionally put his hands over his ears if he’s getting overwhelmed, but that is often more about shielding himself from a total sensory overload, than about being upset specifically by sounds.
On the other hand, he’s a huge auditory sensory seeker in many ways, as he loves to make loud sounds with his voice, so much so that I’ve started to consider getting noise-cancelling headphones for myself… He also really likes to put the iPhone speakers right up to his ear.
His auditory processing differences might also play part in him being non-verbal, although that is an issue involving several senses as well as aspects with no direct link to sensory processing. But, without being able to know this for sure, it is very likely that he hears things differently to most of us, and perhaps he experience a kind of interferance on the line when we speak to him.
I once saw someone describe sensory processing disorder as a having uneven roads for the sensory information to travel on. So when some kind of sensory information was received and travelling towards the brain, the road would sometimes be wide, sometimes narrow, and some information would get through too fast and other bits might get stuck on the way, or get through but delayed or distorted.
2. Tactile (Touch)
This is another one which I think many have heard about in connection with autism, but then (as with sound) mainly about avoidance. For Penguin however, and for many others too, it’s more about seeking a firm and distinct tactile input, rather than avoiding touch completely. So while a light touch might make him uncomfortable, he’s very happy with firm hugs and pats, holding hands firmly etc. It’s like he needs a very ‘loud’ and clear tactile signal, for his body to pick up on it properly.
It’s quite common for people with sensory processing issues to be sensitive about details in their clothing, such as labels and seams, but we haven’t had much of that with Penguin, so far. But just like our taste regarding food, music, colours etc can change as we grow, so can sensory processing differences.
Touch can also be a sense a person uses to familiarise themselves with new surroundings. When Penguin was younger, he would ALWAYS want to touch everything in all new environments, and to some extent he still does this, but not to the same level (thankfully for me, as that can be super stressful when visiting places where touching stuff is not appreciated).
3. Gustatory (Taste)
I realise that I’m repeating myself here, but as with the previous two sensory systems, this is also one which is often mentioned in connection with avoidance/aversion. Many autistic people are very selective eaters, and in part this is linked to the sense of taste. But it’s very often also about textures (linked to the sense of touch, and perhaps also to proprioception). Being a selective eater can also be about feeling safe and in control, by sticking to already familiar food stuffs.
Penguin is a combination of seeker and avoider, for this as for most of the other senses (though leaning more towards the sensory seeking side of things on average). He is a selective eater, avoids runny textures for example, but he also loves sharp and distinct flavours, such as lemon, mint, ginger or chilli. So it’s similar to what I described regarding touch, that his sensory system needs clear and ‘loud’ signals to feel safe and confident about what’s going on (I hope my explanation of this makes sense?)
4. Olfactory (Smell)
I haven’t actually got a great deal to say about this one, as it’s a sense which Penguin doesn’t appear to have any significant issues with. Although, as there is a strong link between what we smell and what we taste, it’s reasonable to assume that his sense of smell is probably under-responsive too. I remember when he was a toddler and I offered him a few different herbs and spices to have a sniff of, and his reactions were much more muted than I had expected.
For others though, a heightened sense of smell can cause them to struggle with their environment, such as being expected to eat in a room which is filled by all the smells of other people and their food etc (like in a canteen, for example). Of course it could also be an advantage in some professions, where distinguishing nuances in scent is of great importance.
5. Visual (Sight)
In contrast to the senses we’ve discussed so far, this is one where I think we hear more often about seeking than avoidance, in connection with autism. There are definitely many who need to shield themselves from visual input to some extent, for example by wearing sunglasses, even in environments which many of us would not perceive as particularly bright at all. And busy patterns can definitely cause distress for some. But more often, I think, we hear about autistics who love watching flickering movements, flashing lights, sparkling reflections, spinning objects, running water etc.
Penguin certainly displays a lot of these forms of visual sensory seeking. He also has a pretty good eye for details and an extremely strong visual memory (both aspects also common in autism), which I’m guessing is in some way connected to how the brain processes visual input. It seems very reasonable, doesn’t it, to assume that the ways in which we sense and perceive our surroundings affect how we learn about them, and also how we interact with them. This is why I see sensory processing differences (or disorder, but I personally prefer the term differences) as such a central aspect of Penguin’s autism and learning differences.
The following senses will be discussed in part two of this mini-series on sensory processing:
6. Vestibular (Movement and balance, sensing where we are in space)
7. Proprioception (Sensations from muscles and joints of the body)
8. Interoception (Sensing signals from our own internal organs)
…so thank you for reading, and welcome back for more tomorrow! x