Last year I went to a breakfast with some of the community leadership people in Canberra. It was at a nice cafe and two of the people at the table ordered an omelette with black truffles. The wait person cam over and shaved truffles generously on both the omelettes. I struggle with mushrooms and fungus and had never been in close proximity to truffles before. The smell emanating from the offending luxury breakfast was so overpowering I had to sit at another table some distance from everyone else. I imagine they may have thought I was quite strange but I really needed to be away from that smell. I actually had flashbacks of the smell for a few weeks. I would be doing my thing and suddenly I was back with the truffle smell! It was like it was inside of me.
That is a fairly clear example fos sensory processing disorder (SPD), something which many people – and a great many autistic people – experience. I might point out that you do not need to be autistic to have SPD and that you do not need to have SPD to be autistic. However, there is a big overlap despite SPD not being the exclusive domain of autistic people.
Sensory issues are serious. People have quit perfectly good jobs and sold their home to escape a sensory issue. One of the problems with sensory processing issues is that people believe their senses are reality, their ‘truth’. The way you interpret the world is through things like sight, smell and sound. You cannot experience a another person’s senses. Unless you have reason to think otherwise, your senses are the ‘truth.’ So when somebody needs to move to another table at a restaurant because of the smell of your delicious breakfast it can seem odd. If an employee tells their manager that they cannot work in LED lighting and could they please have an alternative form of lighting for their desk, the manager might dismiss the concern because it is not their reality.
Sensory issues can impact on a range of experiences. Sensory processing issues can contribute to overload and ‘meltdown’. They can mean people avoid a situation, such as kids going to school. Some people are unable to articulate their sensory distress which can make it almost impossible to address the issue. This can relate to interoception (the sense of what is happening within the body). Emma Goodall’s excellent Interoception 101 resource includes strategies for building interoception which can help people to be aware of when sensory things are overwhelming, if they are not already able to do that.
Sensory issues can be dismissed by people who ‘don’t get it.’ This can be immensely frustrating and result in anxiety and feelings of disempowerment. Imagine if you spent a month plucking up courage to raise a concern with your manager at work and they simply dismiss your concern and say ‘those lights aren’t bright.’ and then don’t address the issue.
Sometimes having sensory sensitivity can be dangerous and result in some very negative outcomes. An example of this is a person with SPD who is in a locked psychiatric ward. There is no escape from whatever sensory nasty is happening and they are like to feel particularly trapped, stressed and much more prone to overload and meltdown. They may react with aggression simply because they are so overwhelmed and feel that nothing can help them. This is particularly the case if they have raised their concern with hospital staff and nothing was done. This situation can result in some terrible outcomes and illustrates how important it is to take sensory sensitivities seriously.
Some key points about sensory processing include:
- Everyone has different sensory experiences, There is no one experience and things which don’t seem loud or smelly to others can be overwhelming
- Even ‘pleasant’ sensory things like perfume and music can be unpleasant and overwhelming for some people
- If someone raises a concern around sensory issue, take notice of it and act
- Sensory issues can contribute to how someone acts. If a person is overloaded then they are more likely to have ‘difficult’ behaviour
- People in all areas of society need to understand sensory issues and their impact, especially managers, teachers and health workers
- Sensory issues are accessibility issues. As everyone has the right to have accessibility for physical access, so too everyone deserves the right to not be subjected to a sensory onslaught when using facilities.
I am now on the International Sensory Inclusion Board along with some great people. Check out what is happening in the space on their Website