Autism, Sensory, Uncategorized

Atypical Sensory Processing 101

You Guys. I was SO THANKFUL when they–you know, the awesome makers–came out with tagless, seamless clothing items. I remember consistently needing to have the tags cut out of all of my clothing as a child to the point of my parents eventually pulling the tags out as soon as they were purchased. But I could still ALWAYS feel where the seams were, and where the tags once resided and I still always wear tights or leggings under any pair of jeans I wear. When I noticed similar sensitivities in B, and I had to consistently cut his tags out and turn his socks inside out when he was younger, I was ecstatic to see “sensory friendly” clothing start popping up left and right.

The majority of autistic people experience atypical sensory processing to some degree, as obviously do those of us with sensory processing disorder. This doesn’t always mean that we are always sensitive to certain sensations or input. In fact, it can go both ways. Atypical sensory processing simply means that sensory input can be experienced as either a hyper-or hypo reaction.

It isn’t necessarily known why some people experience atypical sensory processing, while others do not, but there is a good deal of evidence pointing toward a difference in neurological wiring between those of us who experience atypical sensory processing, and those who experience sensory processing typically.

Something that seems to play a critical role in how we perceive sensory stimuli is the concept of sensory gating. Sensory gating is also known simply as gating, or filtering, and is essentially a way for our (awesome!) brains to weed out unnecessary stimuli coming our direction, so it can get down to business and help us focus on the “important” things. It basically prevents our brains from becoming overloaded. I really rather like the image that comes to mind when I think of sensory gating. I imagine it’s like a series of floodgates of sorts, that can be controlled, open and closed, like a dam. All at once, a few of these “dams”, or gates are open to allow what our brain deems as important or relevant sensory information to pass through, while other gates remain closed to ensure that that information which is seemingly unimportant gets filtered out. Our brains do this adjusting all on their own, like magic. They’re constantly making adjustments to ensure that what’s supposed to get through does, and what’s not doesn’t.

For instance, at this exact moment in time, I can hear our two dogs outside parking, air blowing out of the vent in my bedroom, rain hitting the window, frogs peeping outside,  the sound of B biting his fingernail, can feel air blowing between my fingers as I type, the feeling of my hair against my neck, and the list goes on and on.

The majority of peoples’ brains would interpret these things as being unimportant and would automatically close their sensory gates, making sure that the sensory input wouldn’t prove to be a distraction as they’re trying to type, etc. and a typical person would actually probably need to try to make note of those sensations, as if they were engaging in a sort of meditation or something, in order to actually be able to make note of them. For those of us who are autistic or experience sensory processing disorder, however, we experience each of these things all. at. once. I’m not having to stop and think, “what do I hear, feel, smell, see, etc.? It’s just all there and it doesn’t stop for us to finish the important things.

As I mentioned, the ways in which sensory information is processed by our brains are not well understood, but it can be thought of for the autistic/SPD brain as such: Once sensory information passes through the gate, it goes through further filtering so it can travel to the necessary parts of our brains. For instance, it may travel to our limbic system which is responsible for our emotions (pleasure, fear, anger, etc.) and drives (hunger, sex, etc.). As this input is filtered, the various parts of our brain are able to communicate with one another.

The autistic/SPD brain still engages in this filtration process, but it goes about it a bit differently. Rather than the sensory information that passes through the gate being solely important or relevant, it’s a mixture of relevant and irrelevant. Since EVERYTHING gets processed in this way and much of what’s processed isn’t ordered in terms of relevance, our incoming sensory experiences can turn out to be a bit uneven. For instance, the dogs barking and frogs peeping outside, air coming out of the vent, and all of the other little things going on around us can seem to us to be at the same volume as someone speaking right in front of us. All of these inputs being simultaneously processed by the brain can very easily result in sensory overload, but I’ll save that for another post.










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