People on the autism spectrum vary widely when it comes to issues involving their senses. Many of the behaviors that we engage in are in response to these issues. They may be mild or serious, and researchers do not really understand them and how we perceive these sensory inputs.
Many people on the autism spectrum have difficulty processing everyday sensory information. Any of the senses may be over- or under-sensitive, or both, at different times. These sensory differences can affect behaviour, and can have a profound effect on a person’s life
One type of issue is touch. Some folks on the spectrum seem to feel fabrics in a more intense way. Only certain clothes will feel comfortable. A common issue are those tags in the back of shirts, with the size or washing instructions on them.
Neurotypical people may feel a slight tickle or nothing at all at the base of their neck.
For someone on the spectrum, that same tag may feel like an angry cat is back there, scratching your skin.
Certain fabrics may feel soothing to someone on the spectrum, while others, perhaps too rough, or too smooth, will provoke an emotional response to the sensory input.
Sound is another problem. I find that I hear all the conversations going on around me and in a crowd, like a party, I cannot stay on track with the conversation that I am in. Again, the sensory input and the reaction varies by person. Autistic people will often wear noise cancelling headphones in situations that neurotypicals find normal. Supermarkets, with the music the the background, and the many voices, and sounds from the cash registers, and… well, you get the picture. And, we are hearing these sounds at a higher volume, which is why truly loud sounds can often provoke a major response, even a meltdown.
Lighting can be an issue, and is one that those of us who work often notice. Fluorescent lighting is unbearable for some. Standard fluorescent lamps produce light that is not at all like daylight, very dissimilar wavelengths. And, they hum. Eye strain and headaches are frequently reported in these circumstances. Sun glasses seem to help many with this sensory issue.
Food can be a problem. Your autistic child may not like the taste, texture, or color of a particular food. Those of us on the spectrum will often have a small number of foods that we will eat, and that may present nutrition problems. Most often, it agitates our parents, our significant others, our hosts. It is like demanding that a neurotypical eat horse manure.
Other sensory issues can be involved, such as no reaction to pain, or to heat or cold. Sometimes these can be lifethreatening.
Many believe that sensory overload / issues with handling the input from a person’s senses can be painful to the autistic person. Others suggest that it is an interpretation issue, and the autistic brain is not recognizing or processing the sensory input in the ways that neurotypicals do. My guess is that it may be a little of both and other things as well. And, as always, it will vary by individual.