The human body has several senses. There are the well-known ones: touch, sight, hearing, smell, and taste. And then there are proprioception (the awareness of our body in relation to our surroundings), interoception (the body’s internal state: things such as being hot or cold, thirsty, hungry, in discomfort or pain), and the vestibular system (concerned with balance).
Neurodivergent people often experience sensory input differently to the neurotypical majority. Some of us feel certain sensations more strongly: those aspects of our sensory systems are over-responsive. Others have under-responsive senses and experience things less strongly.
In general, those who have under-responsive senses often seek additional sensory stimulation, while those whose senses are over-responsive tend to avoid situations and activities that provide greater sensory input.
My body over responds to input from a number of my senses: touch, sight, sound, and balance–these kinds of sensations can cause too much input for my brain to process and result in a negative reaction such as stress, panic, pain or disorientation.
Taking the senses one by one, these are the kinds of effect this has on me.
- I dislike getting anything on my hands: dirt, oil, paint, food, water, etc. and get the urge to wash or wipe them immediately. I avoid touching anything I perceive as dirty or otherwise likely to leave a residue.
- I keep a distance from other people and try to avoid crowded environments so that I won’t be touched inadvertently or unexpectedly. I react to unexpected touch by recoiling strongly, sometimes enough to cause me injury.
- Light touch is uncomfortable
- I favour clothing with soft, stretchy materials that don’t bunch, scratch or chafe.
- I hated having my hair combed, my nails trimmed, and my teeth brushed as a child. I still find these activities uncomfortable.
- I find bright lights or changes in the intensity of lighting very uncomfortable.
- Flickering or flashing lights are uncomfortable and very distracting, as is a lot of motion in my field of vision.
- I often close my eyes or try to find a dark environment as a response to discomfort.
- Unexpected sounds make me anxious.
- Exposure to constant noise exhausts me, even if it’s at low levels (such as the sound of ventilation fans) because I find it very difficult to filter it out. Noise cancelling headphones are brilliant!
- Loud noises like fire alarms are painful and can make me disoriented. I have ear defenders close at hand in my workplace because the alarm noise affects my ability to evacuate the building. Hand driers in bathrooms are another source of discomfort: I avoid using the noisy ones.
- I struggle to pick out sounds such as voices from background noise, making it difficult to hold conversations unless I’m in a quiet environment. The effort of trying to discern words can be exhausting and lead to disorientation.
- I can cope with structured, predictable sound like music that I know even if it’s loud. I think this is because it doesn’t trigger anxiety and my brain doesn’t need to work hard: the cognitive load remains low.
- I get motion sick very easily if I don’t have an external visual frame of reference such as the horizon. Boats are especially bad and I’ve sat out on deck in cold, dark and rain to avoid becoming seasick.
- Unstable or uncertain footing makes me nervous about falling.
- I hold the handrail when going up or down stairs, and move carefully to make sure I don’t fall.
- I become very anxious when lifted up bodily so my feet leave the ground.
- I panic if my chair tilts backwards when I lean back.
- I dislike spinning and rapidly become dizzy.
- I lose my balance if I tilt my head back and look upwards.
- I don’t like to close my eyes when standing or walking because I feel unsteady on my feet when I can’t see my surroundings.
- I can’t stand certain strong odours. As a child I would hold my breath going through the perfume section of department stores, and even today I ran through the Duty Free shopping area of an airport terminal because the strong smells were distressing.
- I don’t wear perfume and find it uncomfortable to be exposed to its powerful scents. This can be a major problem on public transport and in other enclosed public spaces, so I avoid such environments as much as possible.
- Other strong smells like food or many “natural” odours pose no problem to me at all, leading me to suspect my sensitivity might be to volatile solvents frequently found in perfumes rather than the scents themselves.
This is kind of my odd-one-out because, unlike the other senses, my interoceptive sense is under-responsive. This means that I’m often unaware of the state of my own body.
- I’m not very aware of feelings of hunger or thirst. In particular, I can become dehydrated to the point of headaches and visual disturbances before I realise I’m thirsty.
- I can’t tell when I’ve eaten enough, and unless I restrict my portion size I continue to eat to the point of being physically full and in discomfort.
- I’m not always aware of physical discomfort or pain, especially when caused by poor posture when sitting or standing.
What I’ve described are the effects I experience. While most of these are fairly typical for a person with over-responsive sensory systems, not everybody will experience all of them and some will experience effects I don’t get myself.
There are also many people whose senses are under-responsive, and in those cases their reactions can be very different from somebody who is over-responsive. It’s also not uncommon to have different degrees of sensitivity across different senses.
Because many of my senses are over-responsive I experience more situations where my environment can overwhelm me, and being overstimulated in one sense can make the others even more sensitive. I’ve learned to avoid these situations as much as I can because avoidance is one of the most effective strategies, but that’s not always possible. This is where aids such as ear defenders and tinted glasses are valuable.
Since all this happens in the brain, other things have an impact on it day-to-day including overall physical and mental health, stress levels, and getting enough sleep. It’s not always an easy condition to manage, and does at times affect my ability to work and do everyday activities such as shopping. It can be disabling, which is why accommodations and sensory aids are important.