Tag Archives: sensory processing

Sensory sensitivities

Sometimes having sensory sensitivities makes me more able to deal with unpleasant things than most people. I’ve had to learn to handle bad sensations my whole life, so it means I’m better at ignoring things that other people find intolerable.

Most of my sensitivities are to do with either smell or eating. I get easily stressed out by loud and bright things, but there aren’t any specific visual or auditory sensations that bother me in the way some smells and foods do.

One of the worst smells for me is a specific “car smell”. A lot of people would probably say that cars don’t have a smell, or at least they don’t all smell the same. But, they do! It does vary from car to car, but they all have a very particular combination of a few things: a hint of petrol/diesel vapour, the musty and usually damp air, and the plasticky materials of the interior.

That smell feels like a physical threat to me. It makes me feel ill, it gives me a headache, and I get stressed and anxious. I’m more used to the smell of my family’s own car, which is one of the reasons I don’t like going in other people’s. When I was little I tried to explain that the smell of my aunt and uncle’s car was the reason I didn’t want to drive with them. But no-one really understood, because most people don’t notice or care about the “car smell”.

So, all my life I’ve had to learn to tolerate something which feels intolerable. Depending on the situation I just try to avoid the smell by breathing with my mouth, or I reduce it with open windows and air conditioning, or I just get used to it – some days it seems less strong than others.

It’s pretty clear that I have a reduced neurological tolerance for some sensations. My brain and senses get frazzled by certain things much more easily than most people. But as a result of that, I’ve developed an increased conscious tolerance. I’ve had to teach myself to push on even when my brain is telling me to freak out about a sensation.

Which means that when a sensation arises which is equally unpleasant for me and other people, I often handle it better. If there is a mysterious drain smell coming from the sink, everyone in the household freaks out more than I do. Because, what’s new? There’s a bad smell – it’s not a rare occurrence for me. So I assume that I’m being oversensitive as usual, and that I should put up with my discomfort because other people won’t care. Then when other people do care, it’s quite unexpected.  I find myself wanting to reassure them that they can handle the bad smell, because I feel so much more experienced with that than they are! Which is pretty strange when I’m the youngest person in the family.

 

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Food

Food is a notorious issue for many autistic people, and I am definitely included.

I’ve always been a legendarily ‘picky eater’. From the age I could express a preference, I demanded that foods on my plate not be touching. I never wanted to eat vegetables. I would always prefer to eat my same few favourites over and over again, and eating out or in a new place was a huge source of stress. I was renowned for ending up with a plate of bread and butter at family parties or gatherings.

My food issues have always varied a bit over time. When I’m generally more anxious and stressed, I get more strict about my ‘rules’ because they’re a source of control and reassurance. But the underlying preferences are always there. Certain things are just impossible for me to handle – certain combinations of tastes and textures are processed like a threat and my brain tells me it’s harmful.

I don’t like most strong flavours or spices. I can’t stand ‘savoury’ foods that are at all sweet or sugary. I don’t like anything which has lots of different flavours mixed together.

I generally can’t deal with contrasting textures in the same mouthful. I don’t like foods to be mixed because I don’t eat them together anyway, so having them separate on the plate just makes it easier! If anyone was to closely watch me eat something mixed, like noodles with peas, they would see that each forkful contains only one or the other – never both.

There are also some textures which are unacceptable even by themselves. I like things that are very soft, like mashed potato or well-cooked (over-cooked!) pasta. And I like things that are completely crunchy, like toast or raw carrots. It’s in-between textures that are a problem. Unfortunately, that in-between area is where most cooked vegetables lie.

I’m working on finding ways around it, though. I over-cook vegetables until they’re falling apart, or blend them in sauces and soups so they’re completely uniform. I generally stick to my favourite reliable foods, which are always consistent. I take nutritional supplements to make up for what I might be missing out on. It’s not ideal, because of course it seems more right to get everything you need from ‘real’ food. But lots of things in life aren’t ideal, and I think food is a relatively minor issue in the scheme of things. If I’m getting enough calories to power my body through the day, and enough nutrition to keep all my organs in working order, then I think I’m doing alright.