Change and fluctuation


Someone wrote in to ask whether our (autistic) experiences of tactile defensiveness, gaze avoidance, auditory, gustatory or olfactory sensitivity changes over time (over a life-time) and/or in response to what else may be going on in our lives. I responded:

I've certainly had changes over the course of my (54 year) life time. When I was a child, I tolerated a very limited range of foods. That range has broadened dramatically over time. When I was 45, I was surprised to find that I could eat even green pepper.

Tactile sensitivity has changed over time, too, possibly due in part to becoming more secure in my control over various aspects of life. I care for my own hair now, for example, except for getting it cut, and being in control may have helped decrease the defensiveness I had for years (because it hurt to have my hair combed). Likewise, I can choose my clothing (although most of it is second-hand and found for me by a friend) and alter it as suits me (e.g., removing labels).

My auditory and olfactory abilities/senses seem especially dependent on my physical (and psychological) state. If I am upset or sick or tired or stressed, I may be "hard of hearing" (actually, "hard of comprehending"), and I may not be able to tolerate some scents/smells (to the extent that I may need to avoid them in order to avoid vomiting). When I'm really tired/stressed, I sometimes can't even comprehend my own speech, much less that of other people.

I'm not sure how those things have changed over time. Not a lot, I suspect. When I was a child, I was too little other-oriented to notice much about how interactions were going when I was upset/stressed (or when I was not upset/ stressed, for that matter ). All my attention was on self-defense, so I wouldn't have noticed (or cared) if I was failing to comprehend what people were saying to me. And I know I definitely/literally ran from noxious-to-me smells as a child.

The questioner also asked whether we found that our ability to tolerate distressing situations fluctuated or changed over time. I continued:

Again, I think being more secure in my ability to exercise (some measure of) control is helpful in allowing me to tolerate certain situations (noisy, crowded) better than I used to. That and the adult perspective that enables me to have a better grasp of time. When I was young, whatever was going on was likely to seem all-encompassing, in time as well as in actual sensory experience. I couldn't (hadn't developed the capacity to) think past what was "here and now," so if a situation was painful, it was natural to want to flee. Being able to budget my own time (e.g., "only 30 more mintues and then it will be over" or "ten minutes will fulfill my duty and I can leave") helps me tolerate situations I'd never seek out on my own account -- as when I am obliged to attend a pot-luck social at work, for example. I suspect feeling in control -- having it be my own decision to enter into a situation -- helps also in cases of things like a bus ride, which has annoying aspects but which I may choose for reasons that are sufficiently persuasive for me. Part of what makes sensory sensitivities so awful in childhood is that we (as children) so often exprience them as beyond our control. (What we can't control feels eternal, as well as almost always seeming arbitrary and capricious and startling.)

With respect to eye-contact, I wrote:

I don't remember anyone nagging me about eye contact when I was a child. Just lucky, I guess. Or oblivious. :-) These days, when I have become (belatedly) aware of the role eye contact plays in NT communication, I sometimes make an effort to simulate it. But that is for the benefit of the NT with whom I am conversing. It does nothing for me except to use up more of my energy and keep part of my mind (which includes my listening apparatus) distracted and therefore less efficient.



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