Senses & sensitivity

Posted: December 16th, 2008 under life on the spectrum, sensory processing, socialization.
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Autistic individuals have differences in sensory processing.   They may have perfect vision according to an eye chart…perfect hearing when tested with pure tone audiometry–and yet be unable to “see” and “hear” what others see and hear.   In addition, autistic individuals react to environmental inputs others tend to ignore, and do not react to those others find important.  Thus the autistic child’s near-universal intolerance of tags in the back of shirts, seams in socks,  “floaters” in orange juice, and inability to judge the speed of oncoming traffic when crossing the street.

One of my textbooks on autism dismissed the idea that sensory processing problems could be central to autism because the writer saw no way that these differences could result in the more obvious social and language deficits.    That person clearly had no experience in programming computers, where “garbage in, garbage out” is a common mantra.

If a person is not getting the same sensory information in, they will not experience the world the same–and will not behave the same.   The color blind person does not see that the traffic light is red–and does not stop unless its position warns him.   Normal social interaction rests on the senses–on our ability to extract information from our senses, assign meaning to it, and respond in a way our society approves.

One fairly common problem in children with language delays (including autistic children but not limited to them) is the inability to capture very brief auditory stimuli…they can hear a sustained tone, but not a brief sound–such as a consonant like /d/ or /p/ or /t/ .    Vowels last longer (and are emphasized even more when people try to slow down their speech) but vowels alone sound like “mooing” (a term used by Temple Grandin in describing what speech sounded like to her as a child.)   A child needs to build up the phonological library of his/her native language–and to do that must be able to capture all the sounds.

It’s possible to train the brain to capture sounds it could not capture at first (Paula Tallal’s work on this, including developing a computer program that artificially lengthens consonant sounds, is brilliant.)   Without such help,  verbal language is severely delayed, as the child must hear sounds to be able to copy them.   In addition to the sounds of the language, verbal communication carries other channels of meaning–rate of speech, prosody, loudness, tone of voice–all of them expressing socially important meanings about the speaker’s intent and emotional state.   The very same words can be used to mean different things (a constant annoyance for many autistic persons.)    Suzette Hayden Elgin’s books on verbal abuse describe in detail how these details change meaning.

Autistic children may also have trouble with rapid visual input…essential to good social interaction.   Communication is far more than verbal language, and many of the social signals are carried by brief (sometimes even unconscious) movements of the eyes, the small muscles in the face (tightening an eyelid, tensing cheek muscles on one side, etc.)  which the child may not capture.   If you do not see the eyelids flicker, the lips twitch and release, the brows lift and fall,   you cannot follow a conversational partner’s move from interested to bored, from serious to annoyed to angry.    Again, training can help (presenting these expressions as static images, then increasing the speed of movement in stages.

The autistic child is like an adult dropped into a foreign culture where no one speaks his language, no one eats the “right” foods, all the facial expressions and gestures are different.   Most monolingual people retreat, when in a foreign country, into tourist enclaves…they want to find someone who speaks their language, someone who likes what they like.   Even the more adventurous are likely to spend some time in a more comfortable environment.  But the autistic infant and child has no way to retreat other than withdrawal–only if the parents and other caregivers trouble to learn from the child’s reactions what is comfortable and what is not, and create a safe zone,  and provide “translations”, will the child be motivated to venture out farther.


  • Comment by Hsienli Tan — December 16, 2008 @ 8:55 pm


    I agree absolutely. Socially speaking, in a metaphorical sense, autuism is like nonconformism.

    People who don’t conform to the rules of their tribe or society are dealt with according to the degree of their “nonconfroming”, from mild to life-threatening. The tribe or society makes rules that suit the majority, and doesn’t tolerate well the differences of individuals. In primitive times, tribal laws were intended for survival — group effort offer better chances for survival. So people were afraid to non-conform for fear of being ostracized, which included being literally cast out of the tribe. Surviving alone, without the collective’s food gathering power and physical protection, could mean a death sentence. It’s my personal theory that the conforming mentality is an appendage — like the tail bone — left over from our tribal past. It still makes most people feel safe.

    Autuistic individuals, because they perceive the information of their environments in their own way, and not in the way as most people are “supposed to” perceive, they are the ones considered strange by the majority. After all, the “norm” is set by the majority. What was once to protect survival, in modern times, the “norm” can oppress life.

    Ideally, a more enlightened society no longer drowns in tribal laws and recognizes individual differences as valid human potential.

  • Comment by sari — December 17, 2008 @ 11:29 am


    Most autists fit the criteria for sensory integration disorder. A useful tool for determining which systems are disordered and to what extent (hypo/hyper) is Winnie Dunn’s “Sensory Profile”. A good occupational therapist, one well versed in autism spectrum disorders, can assess the individual and then use that data to help create an appropriate regimen.

    One very useful technique involves brushing the extremities with a hard surgical brush followed by a series of joint compressions. Sounds horrible, but it seems to be enjoyable and helps “center” the individual before he or she engages in more stressful activities.

  • Comment by Elizabeth — December 17, 2008 @ 11:18 pm


    I was re-reading Rogoff’s excellent _Apprenticeship in Thinking_, a cross-cultural consideration of how children learn in a socio-cultural context, recently, and what hit me this time was some early (w/in first 9 months) “milestones” that might be helpful in the early diagnosis of autism. Or might not, but it’s worth consideration, I think.

    Another rock, as they say.

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