Herman & Associates
Autistic Spectrum Disorders: Sensory Sensitivity
Affect Regulation, Sensory Sensitivity, and Synesthesia.
From birth forward the one primary concern in many individuals with ASD involves emotional regulation. Most individuals with an ASD have few coping skills and are commonly overwhelmed by their emotions, especially in social situations.
One contributing factor to emotional dysregulation involves trouble regulating sensory input. While we have all had this experience (e.g., a stereo or movie that is too loud, too many flashing lights, unusual taste or food textures, scratchy clothing or uncomfortable touching), those with ASD experience an unusually high level of sensitivity to ordinary sensations constantly. This hypersensitivity to many sensations often contributes to acute emotional dysregulation and withdrawing behavior in order to control and reduce sensory input. Because sensory over stimulation is so distracting and uncomfortable, we typically move quickly to control over stimulation of any kind. Sometimes we are inadvertently rude in our rush to reduce the overwhelming stimulation. This is often the case for individuals with ASD. In an attempt to quickly reduce stimulation, they often inadvertently offend others, or appear rude, disinterested, or insensitive. Because individuals with ASDs typically lack insight and have poor social communication skills, they do not know how to repair errors in social relationships. Thus, they may unintentionally commit an error, not understand the social consequences, and then not know what to do to resolve the errors. These misunderstanding often contribute to their frustration regarding social interactions and sometimes lead to social withdrawal and isolation.
Another contributing factor to emotional dysregulation involves confusion regarding sensory input from multiple sources. This can occur externally when a person is attempting to pay attention to several important sources of information simultaneously. For example, students are commonly listening to lectures, trying to read slide presentations, and also trying to take notes all at the same time. It's also why individuals with ASD prefer to avoid parties or other large social gatherings where there will be many voices and loud noises, complex nonverbal cues, and much visual information to process. This can be confusing for many of us, but it is particularly challenging for individuals on the autistic spectrum who have particular trouble processing multiple sensory inputs simultaneously.
Additionally, many people with ASD also have atypical internal sensory experiences whereby the activation of one sense involuntarily triggers another. These is termed synesthesia. According to Wikipedia, synesthesia is a "neurologically-based phenomenon in which stimulation of one sensory or cognitive pathway leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sensory or cognitive pathway." For example, some individuals with ASD experience the blending of numbers and colors or letters. Every number has it's own color associated with it and these colors are consistent over time. Other people have reported associating three-dimensional shapes with sounds. Individuals with synesthesia appear to have a neurological base for confusion processing certain types of sensory inputs.