This post is also available in Dutch.
Our senses are the first layer that encounters this world and enables us to perceive its various aspects and traits. From sensation comes our ability to recognize and represent in our brain the world around us, so that we can make sense of it. Since our sensory skills are so ingrained in our daily lives, we rarely think, let alone understand, what their disruption could entail. And even more so when such a disruption takes place in the beginning of someone’s development.
Sensory difficulties in ASD occur early in life
Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) constitute such a case and one that is mostly known for its social and communication difficulties and/or repetitive patterns and behaviors. It has only recently been recognized as one in which more than 90 per cent of the diagnosed individuals have some kind of sensory difficulty.
The sensory difficulties in ASD can range from sensory hyper-sensitivity – being extremely sensitive and over-responsive to stimuli – to hyposensitivity – exactly the opposite from the former and which can lead to excessive sensory seeking. Hypersensitivity can lead to sensory overload. The illustrative video below makes us truly wonder how one functions and connects with others under these circumstances. Even more so, if these difficulties are already present when you begin to explore and connect with the world.
The impact of sensory difficulties on behavior and social skills
Researchers are asking the exact same questions, and more and more studies are being done on investigating the link between sensory and social/adaptive skills. Early difficulties in integrating dynamic stimuli of social nature might disrupt the development of skills required for engagement in social situations and forming relationships. Touch is of prominent importance when a toddler learns how to interact with the world, and it’s naturally linked to the ability to socialize and adapt to daily life’s demands. If stimuli become too much or aversive, it makes sense to avoid them in the first place. For instance, social situations might be labeled as aversive altogether, while in fact only part of them was particularly difficult to handle, e.g., the noise. The cascading effects of something like this on someone’s capacity and willingness to interact with their environment can easily become too much, and aversion becomes second nature. In contrast, well-timed intervention could reveal a promising avenue for treatment.
“We needed to understand the child’s behaviors and what they suggested as the probable underlying reason for the behaviors. We needed to remember that behaviors are a message, a symptom—not a diagnosis.”Carol Stock Kranowitz, The Out-of-Sync Child: Recognizing and Coping with Sensory Processing Disorder
As to the rest of us, we can only get a glimpse of how such an experience could feel through simulations that force us to walk in shoes that deviate from our normative experience. There is a reason why blind museums constitute such an eye-opening experience (pun intended) and why simulations of hearing voices that are not there can scare us to our core. By experiencing first-hand the multifold consequences of senses going awry, efforts like this have tremendous importance for creating more understanding. And hopefully for our becoming more willing to adapt to various people’s needs.