Life on the Autism spectrum

Autism & the senses

Some people experienced strong sensory aversions, such as a dislike of being touched or of being kissed.  Some were hypersensitive to sounds, lights or smells.  They felt discomfort or were distracted if they were in a room with fluorescent lights or loud air conditioning units.  Some intensified sensory sensitivities could be pleasurable. One woman, for example, said that “patterns are beautiful and my vivid visualisations probably explain why I am good at maths and science and art and music and have a photographic memory”.

“Bright lights are quite, quite distracting”
Richard, for example, could tell with his fingers if a television had power on or could hear very high frequency noises that other people could not hear; a woman said that her children were amazed that she knew what they were doing because she was so sensitive to sounds.

These sensory issues had an impact on everyday life and some people couldn’t go into supermarkets or go out in the evening to parties or wedding receptions. Julie said that Tim was like “a startled rabbit” in ASDA and B&Q because the lights and acoustics were overwhelming. Tim found that this feeling was getting worse as he was growing older and this was partly what motivated him to seek a diagnosis.
Alex was diagnosed with sensory processing disorder which meant that she didn’t process speed and distance in the same way as most people.  This made crossing roads unaccompanied impossible for her.

“May is black and June is orange”
Some people talked about being synaesthetes. Synaesthesia is a joining together of senses that are usually experienced separately. For example, words are experienced as colours, shapes or smells.  This can be experienced positively or, sometimes negatively.  One woman said that daydreaming can become an exciting multi-sensory activity which is hard to resist during boring lessons.

A characteristic of autism is to rock or flap hands and this is often related to trying to manage sensory overload.

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Last reviewed July 2016.
Last updated November 2010.


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