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Often the response I get when I discuss how sensory seeking I am is: “But you are autistic, you hate noise/lights/touch – insert whatever sense they deem to use – because you are hypersensitive.” In a few ways this is true – I am easily overloaded, can be highly avoidant and am definitely hypersensitive. However, there are many experiences and sensations that bring me immense joy – it depends widely on my mood, circumstances and company.
So what exactly do I mean when I say “sensory seeking” and “sensory avoidant” and how does this relate to autism?
There are seven senses that are relevant to this discussion: the common five, hearing, sight, touch, taste, smell and then two additional senses called proprioception (the position and strength of moving limbs) and vestibular (perception of the body relating to motion, gravity, speed and head position).
For some people, it is easy to take this input and transmute it into valid information. For others, it is difficult to maintain balance. This is especially true for those with the sensory processing disorders that frequently occur in those with ADHD and Autism. We can struggle with sensory modulation.
Sensory seeking behavior is intended to increase the intensity of stimulation from the environment. It strives to activate these seven senses. Sensory seeking individuals may, for example, love making noises, walk barefoot to feel the grass (a particular pleasure of mine), bounce around and remain active, fidget, play roughly or seek out physical contact. Their brains need active stimulation to function. This can be due to under-receptiveness to a particular sense. N.B not always.
Sensory avoidant behavior is intended to create opposite effect – reducing the amount of stimuli as it can easily be overwhelming. Generally, this is due to an over-sensitivity to a particular sense. Examples of sensory avoidance would be limiting textured objects or foods, preferring softer colors, turning down the volume of a song, dislike of hugs and contact or a lack of movement – depending on which senses are more prone to avoidance.
Stereo-typically, I am hypersensitive. It is impossible to count how many times I have heard a sound or noticed a scent that others do not until much later or blocked my ears in pain and flinched at a sudden outburst or yell. Transport like buses and trains can be a personalized hell. At times, input can vary from uncomfortable to excruciating. I avoid circumstances that have many loud noises or bright lights. Certain foods are repulsive and make me feel sick. I am easily overstimulated – triggering sensory meltdowns.
That experience is far from unique amongst autistic people – we can be naturally more sensitive and therefore avoidant. (I will discuss the details of sensory meltdowns, overload and sensory avoidance in part two of this post)
However, that is not always the case. I have a sensory table – objects glued down with various patterns and materials to run my fingers over. I love fidget spinners and magnets. I often click and tap. I move constantly. I love scented creams. These are all sensory seeking behaviors.
The way my brain processes input is fundamentally different to that of the average person and as such I have an unusual relationship with my senses. I seem unable to decide which to be, once again, not an uncommon trait amongst autistic individuals. Today I will look at the role and importance of sensory pleasures – the things that my seeking body delights in.
A case study of the octopus can clarify the need for sensory pleasures. The octopus is a highly intelligent creature with an advanced mind that has the capability to understand complex problems and think creativity. They are highly aware of their surroundings and delight in solving puzzles – such as opening boxes or removing shells. Their key functionality, however lies outside their brain. Two thirds of the neurons in an octopus(hence its processing ability) lie within its eight arms. These arms work independently and can be used for critical decision making.
The key to an octopus’s intelligence lies within its ability to process sensory information. Their arms provide the ability to touch, feel, taste and understand the subtle changes of their environment. (For example, they can sense emotion through taste.) Furthermore, they will use sensory seeking behaviors to communicate by grabbing, holding and exploring new objects. They are driven by sensory reward. It is, therefore, common for a diver to be carefully felt out during interactions. (I would highly recommend watching “My Octopus Teacher” on Netflix if you are curious about these creatures.) An octopus will watch the behavior of others and learn to mimic them to express delight – whether it be another of its own species or a human. It is not uncommon for them to attach themselves to people they like and learn more about them or to spray water at someone they dislike. They do not use words to communicate, but rather tactile and visual information.
We are not unlike an octopus in certain ways – as funny as that sounds. Their behavior introduces a few of the ways that seeking is important, namely processing and communication.
Curiosity is a form of expression.
To elaborate, when I was younger I met another autistic boy (nonverbal). He placed his hands around my arm and patted my face with a smile. Following that, he made a chirruping noise and grabbed my hand. I echoed this back at him. That was my first encounter. I quickly learnt that tactile stimulation was vastly important to him and that feeling things, such as running his hands over stones, allowed him to process his surroundings. Furthermore, he would express affection or fear via touch. It was his primary method of communication.
We both found sensory pleasure in water and would swim together; the feeling of the water was a major touch point and connection. It was a way that we could use sensory seeking to understand each other and often the best form of interaction was to give him something to hold or feel (a sensory pleasure). In mild distress, he would latch onto an object for comfort and to soothe him you could hold his hand.
For another friend, it was hearing. Our communication occurred in vocalized noises and expressions. He would play with toys that made pleasant sounds and mimic them to express moods.
This can be a vital way for people to communicate – especially for those who are non-verbal. We can express ourselves in a variety of ways that transcend words. I have noticed this in myself as well and will regularly use sensory tools, such as gently running my fingers over things, producing noises or drawing in bright colors to communicate.
Processing is another area in which sensory pleasures play a role. Sensory information is the gateway to translating circumstances into meaningful events. It is important, not only for external communication but also for internal deduction. My sensory experience is more intense than the average person’s, making it vital to engage this aspect of my brain.
It is not uncommon for stories of young autistics taking apart entire sound systems or rebuilding working models of trains to emerge. Literal, kinesthetic construction is an example of active seeking behavior that strives to produce knowledge. It is a large part of how we learn, interpret information and make spatial connections. Why would you learn about a car from a textbook when you can engage with it in real life? Creating new methods of engaging the senses can allow the brain to open up neural pathways to facilitate understanding.
This is part of the reason that sensory toys are important. They provoke interest and improve motor skills and cognitive abilities. To further benefit, things that give us sensory pleasure inspire insight. Active learning is a core part of human experience and exploration of new options gives us a better chance of grasping a concept. It becomes far easier to study when one uses techniques such as moving, vocalization, bright colors and other sensory tools.
Stimming or self-stimulatory behavior is a key example of sensory seeking behavior amongst autistic people. This will be unraveled in detail in a later post. (I am excited for that one!)
Sensory pleasures can improve focus and memory. Due to autistic sensitivity, I have to sort through a constant onslaught of information. It might seem counter intuitive to add more input – however a sensory pleasure can provide a focal point. It is a form of stimulation that I can use as a mental anchor so that I do not ‘get lost’ amongst millions of other sensations.
I have been told that I frequently “vacate the planet”, meaning that my mind wanders away from my current situation and I struggle to remain present and ‘in the moment’. Sensory seeking ensures that I maintain my awareness of my surroundings and do not get distracted by tangents. Playing with a fidget pen, for example, can free my mental faculties to constructively focus and improve the sorting of information.
A common misconception is that moving or engaging your senses means you are not paying attention – when the opposite is frequently true.
Sensory seeking minds need stimulation to thrive. If we are forced to sit still – our mental capacity will be entirely occupied by staying still rather than listening to what someone has to say. We will probably stare at you with a pained or distant expression – one that my previous physics teacher became well-acquainted with! Movement, in particular, activates the frontal lobe of your brain – the part that controls memory, higher thought and personality.
The last and most important benefit of sensory pleasures is the joy it brings. Identifying the things that are enjoyable to me and incorporating them into each part of my day dramatically improves my mood. Each time I engage with one of these pleasures – I have a chance to catalog how I am feeling.
Sometimes, I struggle to deal with my emotions and what causes them. Assisting in this regard, sensory pleasures can provide a vast amount of relief. Have you ever suggested that someone have a cup of tea when they are upset or given a child a toy when they are nervous? I am more likely to cope with a negative event if I am in the presence of a form of stimulation that I find pleasant. Using these pleasures to make a boring task more interesting or comfort myself after a bad day is an easy ‘brain hack‘. My sensory pleasures increase the joy of a situation and therefore my interest in it.
When I am upset, it is often better to present one of these sensory pleasures than to try to force verbal communication during which I have to focus on conventional expressions and etiquette. It creates an outlet that allows me to functionally relay my feelings.
(However, not all of these are appropriate when I am overloaded or in meltdown – in those situations extra information can be harmful as stated in part two).
If you have autistic family members that are sensory seeking – help them identify these sensory pleasures and incorporate them into your daily routine. Each person is different and will react to different forms of stimulation. Finding what works for you is a great way to improve your overall enjoyment.
People have called me strange and childish for running my fingers across rough surfaces or playing with scented play dough. The feeling is rewarding enough to ignore them; the enjoyment it brings me far outweighs the social ‘cost’.
Whilst I am hypersensitive to many forms of input (hearing by far the most intense) I have many sensory pleasures to engage with when I feel so inclined. Activating these neural pathways is a great way to stimulate learning, calm myself down, relieve frustration or interpret new information. A few are listed below. I would strongly encourage you to seek out your own.
My sensory pleasures:
Cold sensations: Swimming is my greatest joy; I love smooth ice cubes on my tongue, crushed ice in slushies, cold drinks and cold materials or spoons that have been chilled in the fridge. Cold cream on my skin or gel soaps are preferable. Mint chewing gum creates the after-effect of cold as you breathe and forms part of this sensory pleasure.
Certain scents: I love candles, vanilla and cinnamon, mint, jasmine and geranium as well as most fruity scents (my black cherry Yankee Candle is my favorite). Scented play-dough is one of my top sensory pleasures that I can reach for throughout the day.
Fidget toys: I love things that spin and make a slight noise, mold-able magnets, stress balls out of certain materials, and movable objects like the Rubick’s Twist.
Colors and patterns: Blues, purples, greens and certain shades of red are favorites, objects of various sizes and shapes, glass and reflective surfaces keep things interesting.
Music: I enjoy a variety from all genres, play my keyboard and guitar and adore the sound of a violin.
Coloring and art supplies: I have many bright pencils, crayons, paints and sculpting clay.
Tastes: I delight in smooth sensations on my tongue (sometimes plastic) and interesting flavors – fruits and sweet/sour things are my favorite.
Textures: Rough surfaces, tickling sensations and ridges on my fingertips as well as things like beads or patterns create interesting textures. Gardening barehanded and smooth materials on my body have a similar effect.
Sound effects: I love tweeting birds, whistles, clicks, repeated words such as echo or quintessence, swishing sounds and soft vocalizations. Other sounds include voices that are deeper and appear as the color blue or purple to me (preferably with bronze highlights), the sound of a tapping keyboard or sipping from a bottle.
Movement: All forms of movement, shifting, bouncing, tapping, running, swimming or twisting things in my hand are pleasurable.
And many others that can occur throughout the day! Feel free to comment your own or request more detail on a particular topic I covered. This was just a brief overview of my thoughts.