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Autistic Sensory Sensitivity on Campus, Part Four: Coping Strategies

Coping strategies for autistic sensory sensitivities on campus. This is the fourth in a five-part series of posts where Volunteer Contributor Patrick Dwyer takes a deep dive into sensory sensitivity on campus. These blogs define, explore, and provide suggestions for dealing with campus issues that arise from a variety of sensory challenges. 

Well, it’s taken a while, but we’ve finally reached the part of this series where we’ll actually discuss some practical strategies to help us cope with the aversive sensory stimuli we might find on a college campus! Without further ado, let’s get right into these strategies.

General Coping Strategies

First, let’s consider some general strategies that might be effective for a wide variety of distressing sensations.

Remember how, in the third post in this series, I was saying that our sensory sensitivities are affected by our stress levels? Well, there’s a positive side to this relationship: taking care of yourself could be a very effective strategy for coping with aversive sensory inputs! I suggest trying to schedule your time well and spread your work out gradually, so that you can get plenty of sleep and not get caught up in last-minute rushes. If there are sensations you enjoy and find pleasant (e.g., the comforting pressure of a heavy blanket, the weight or fluidity of water when you swim, the sensation of squeezing a little stress ball, the weight of a wrap on the back of your neck, or whatever else works for you), then go ahead and pursue those sensations. Some people like carrying around heavy objects – my backpack is usually heavier than it really needs to be. Exercise usually helps, especially if you can do it in the relaxing calm of nature.

Another very effective strategy is often to simply avoid distressing sensory inputs whenever you can. Of course, that isn’t always possible. You probably shouldn’t allow yourself to be driven away from important things like lectures because of distressing sensations (unless, on a particular day, things get especially bad and you are on the verge of being overwhelmed). However, there are cases when there’s really no reason to inflict needless sensory suffering on yourself. Thus, it’s probably a good idea to spend some time exploring your college campus looking for calm environments. Areas designed primarily for students’ use can often be very noisy (I’m thinking of places like food outlets, social spaces, and corridors outside classrooms), but hallways outside offices can sometimes be much quieter. Your library probably has a silent study area. You might also find that outdoor spaces can be less overwhelming than the indoors, weather permitting. Your campus might even have a sensory respite room or two, although that may be too much to hope for.

Ultimately, it’s your sensory system and your college campus, so only you can find the best places for you to work and live.

But, sometimes it’s not possible to avoid a sensation. When you’re exposed to a distressing stimulus, try to breathe slowly and deeply. If you can, try putting one hand just below your rib cage and breathing in such a way that you can feel your diaphragm moving as you breathe in and out. There’s also all sorts of mindfulness exercises you could try, some of which can be helpful. For example, if you have a moment where you don’t need to concentrate on anything else, you could try a body scan, slowly focusing on and checking in with each part of your body in turn, which might be able to shift your attention away from some kinds of distressing sensations. (Or it might make things worse, depending on the sensation…)

Furthermore, there’s a whole bunch of strategies that can be helpful in coping with more specific sources of unpleasant sensory stimulation. Here’s a list of some of them:

Hearing

If you’re in a noisy space, there’s always the simple solution of wearing ear protection. Earplugs are an obvious choice, although they vary greatly in quality. There’s also noise-cancelling headphones (see, e.g., Martin-Nemtin, 2016), which can be incredibly effective. They cancel out external noise by producing the opposite inputs, but just like earplugs, they can vary a lot in quality and price. Before hastily purchasing a set of expensive headphones that might not be right for you, research different options, and if you can, try them out.

If there’s an intolerable background sound you need to distract yourself from, try listening to music on headphones.

If you need it for your own space (apartment, residence, etc.), consider getting a white noise machine.

Some people suggest exposing yourself to distressing sounds and building up a tolerance. It’s not an inherently flawed idea, but I think it’s important to be very careful with it. The last thing you want to do is overwhelm yourself by exposing yourself to unnecessary sensory stress. Therefore, this option is probably best reserved only for very specific sounds that you find aggravating, not for loud and general sounds. For example, you could try building up a tolerance to slurping sounds or scratching sounds, but you probably don’t want to try this for noisy crowds. Furthermore, you shouldn’t expose yourself to a distressing stimulus in a way that’s just going to cause stress and anxiety: instead, you should carefully expose yourself to the sound (or a recording of it) in a safe, comfortable environment that you control.

Some people might suggest auditory integration training programs, in which electronically modified sounds are played at frequencies that are supposed to somehow fix our auditory processing system. However, I have to say the mechanism sounds very pseudoscientific, and more importantly, research hasn’t really given us any reason to believe that it works (Research Autism, 2017; Sinha et al., 2011).

Vision

If you find bright lights distracting or distressing, consider wearing sunglasses or tinted glasses.

One cautionary aside here: You may hear that reading difficulties can occur due to sensitivities to specific wavelengths of light, and that to improve your reading, you might have to purchase an expensive “Irlen lens.” However, the science behind the lenses is very shaky, and the lenses themselves can be very expensive (Williams, 2014). If bright light disturbs you, I do suggest trying generic tinted glasses and sunglasses – but be cautious about expensive solutions that might not be any better than the cheap generic option.

If bright lights and fluorescent lights are a problem, perhaps try wearing a hat with a visor or brim.

If you are overwhelmed by large crowds, Willey (1999) suggests moving your hands in front of your face and pretending to rub your temples, as though you were struggling with a headache. This way, you can still see the area directly in front of you, but your arms will block the rest of the crowd.

Smells

Trying chewing on gum to cover up unpleasant smells around you.

Politely ask other people around you not to wear scented products, or ask your instructor to make such a request to your entire class.

Willey (1999) also has a suggestion: Take a liquid or paste with a favorite smell and put a bit on a cotton ball. Then take out the cotton ball if you smell something unpleasant around you.

Touch

If unexpected touch distresses you, ask other people to warn you or ask permission before they touch you.

Wear comfortable clothing that reflects your own sensory preferences. New clothes might be scratchier than old ones, so consider washing them a few times or buying used clothes. If tags bother you, remove them. Grandin and Panek (2013) suggest wearing underwear inside-out, so that the seams are on the outside.

If you are distressed by showers, consider a shorter haircut that takes less time to wash.

If you are distressed by haircuts, consider bringing along alternative sources of sensory stimulation to distract yourself, like a stress ball you could squeeze. You could also try different hair salons to find one with a more comfortable sensory environment.

Another source of unpleasant tactile stimulation can be a poor match between your clothing and the weather. I think many of us do prefer to wear the same general types of clothing repeatedly, because we don’t like change, so we can sometimes be slow to adjust to seasonal changes in the weather. For example, we might keep wearing coats well into the summer, or we might be slow to change out of T-shirts and shorts in the autumn and winter. If this is you, consider checking the weather forecast every morning and choosing your clothes accordingly.

And that’s the end of my list. I hope some of these strategies are going to be useful to you. And please join the discussion – I’m interested in your comments! If you tried any of these strategies, how did it work for you? Do you use any coping strategies that I haven’t listed?

References

Grandin, T., & Panek, R. (2013). The autistic brain: Helping different kinds of mind succeed. New York: Mariner Books. [Sensory coping strategies in Chapter 4]

Martin-Nemtin, T. (2016, April 18). Headphones as accommodations: My letter to Bose. Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism. Retrieved from http://www.thinkingautismguide.com/2016/04/headphones-as-accommodations-my-letter.html

Research Autism. (2017). Auditory integration training and autism. Retrieved from http://researchautism.net/interventions/4/auditory-integration-training-and-autism

Sinha, Y., Silove, N., Hayen, A., & Williams, K. (2011). Auditory integration training and other sound therapies for autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 2011(12): CD003681. https://doi.org/10.1002/14651858.CD003681.pub3

Willey, L. H. (1999). Pretending to be normal: Living with Asperger’s syndrome. London, UK: Jessica Kingsley Publishers. [Sensory coping strategies in Appendix V]

Williams, G. S. (2014). Irlen syndrome: Expensive lenses for this ill defined syndrome exploit patients. BMJ, 349: g4872. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.g4872

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Patrick Dwyer

Patrick is an autistic graduate student in the psychology department at UC Davis with a broad interest in helping to ensure that autistic and neurodivergent people can lead fulfilling lives. He plans to use eye-tracking and electrophysiology to explore the heterogeneity of the autism spectrum and different phenotypes of autism, and is particularly interested in studying sensory processing and sensory sensitivities in autism. He has also facilitated peer-support groups for other autistic college students. You can find more of Patrick’s writing on his blog at autisticscholar.com.

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