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Autistic Sensory Sensitivity on Campus: Part Three, The Role of Environmental Context and Internal Stress

This is the third 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.

In earlier posts, we’ve already introduced sensory sensitivities and discussed how they can manifest on campus. In the next post, we’ll get to coping strategies. However, before we discuss those coping strategies, I think it’s important to recognize that our sensory experiences don’t only depend on the sensory input – don’t only depend on the properties of the specific sensory stimulus we experience – but also depend on other factors. This is something I’ve experienced firsthand, and it also rings through in some of the research studies in which other autistic people have described their own sensory experiences (Robertson & Simmons, 2015; Smith & Sharp, 2013).

For example, it seems as though one’s control over one’s environment shapes one’s sensory experiences. Generally, I can tolerate a sensory stimulus much better if I have control over it than if I do not. In particular, I don’t mind listening to sounds that I create, because I know to expect them and because I know that I can end them at any time. Even if a sound would leave me in pain and overload if anyone or anything else but me made it, I don’t mind the sensation when I produce the exact same sound.

To a lesser extent, I don’t mind sounds as much when listening to them is my choice, driven by my own intrinsic motivation. If there’s something I really want to do, and I’m forced to endure an unpleasant stimulus temporarily as part of that thing, it doesn’t bother me as much as it otherwise would. For example, just a few hours before writing these words, I was at my brother’s high school graduation and I’m afraid part of the ceremony had incredibly loud music. I hated the music, but because I was intrinsically motivated to be at my brother’s graduation, because I was happy for him, and because I knew the music would be over soon, I felt that listening to it was my choice, over which I had control, and so I endured. (Albeit with fingers over my ears.)

On the other hand, if I don’t really want to do something – if I’m only doing it because someone else is forcing me or because I feel pressure to do it from other people or from society as a whole – I’m going to find any unpleasant sensory stimuli that I encounter much more aversive. Let’s imagine that I didn’t like my brother, and that I felt extrinsically forced to attend the graduation ceremony for politeness’ sake. In such a case, I probably would have felt that the environment was out of my control, and I would have had a much more unpleasant experience listening to the exact same music at the exact same volume.

I think it’s essential to understand this, because it helps us to determine our own sensory limits. Say that you’ve usually tolerated some stimulus without too much trouble, and you don’t realize that you are going to find it more unpleasant in some new context that you aren’t intrinsically motivated to be in or that you have less control over. Well, you might go to that new context without preparing for trouble, and that failure to prepare could lead to problems.

Another factor that seems to change the experience of sensory sensitivity is internal stress. My sensory sensitivities get worse when I’m stressed, and that’s very typical of the sensory experiences that other autistic people describe. It makes sense: it’s easier to become overloaded if you’re already stressed.

Therefore, I think it’s very helpful to work on developing the ability to check in with yourself and determine how stressed you are at any given moment. The ability to monitor your stress levels will help give you a good idea of how much sensory load your system can handle. If you’re already tired and stressed, you might want to prepare extra coping strategies or simply withdraw from any unpleasant sensory stimuli in your environment.

Additional Notes
  • I believe that understanding the contextual and internal factors that affect sensory experiences can also help with self-advocacy. Sometimes people have questioned me, pointing out that I don’t seem to be hyper-sensitive in some context, even though I claim to be sensitive to a similar stimulus in another. At first, I didn’t understand why my sensory sensitivities differed across contexts – it took time, and reading about others’ experiences, before I figured it out.
  • If you’re like me, you might also notice that your sensory sensitivities can change over longer periods of time, from month to month and year to year. Sometimes they can get worse. In part, I think this reflects the influence of anxiety: as we come to dread unpleasant sensory experiences, our experiences actually get worse, because they’re preceded by anticipatory stress. This can become a vicious cycle: if one’s always stressed because of sensory sensitivity, one will just get more anxious, more stressed, and more sensitive. There’s some empirical research that shows that sensory sensitivity predicts later changes in anxiety (Green et al., 2012), but my theory about long-term anxiety making sensory sensitivity worse is based purely on my anecdotal experience. If my theory is right, though, the positive side of this relationship is that effective coping with sensory sensitivity should decrease stress and anxiety, and may end up decreasing the severity of the sensory sensitivities themselves. Interestingly, I found I became much less sensitive to loud sounds after I left the middle school environment – I was less sensitive to the loud sounds when I wasn’t always being forced to endure them.

What are your own observations about sensory sensitivity, environmental context, and internal stress? Are there things that don’t bother you in some instances by do in others? Let us know in the comments.

References

Green, S. A., Ben-Sasson, A., Soto, T. W., & Carter, A. S. (2012). Anxiety and sensory over-responsivity in toddlers with autism spectrum disorders: Bidirectional effects across time. Journal of Autism & Developmental Disorders, 42(6), 1112–1119. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-011-1361-3

Robertson, A. E., & Simmons, D. R. (2015). The sensory experiences of adults with autism spectrum disorder: A qualitative analysis. Perception, 44(5), 569–586. https://doi.org/10.1068/p7833

Smith, R. S., & Sharp, J. (2013). Fascination and isolation: A grounded theory exploration of unusual sensory experiences in adults with Asperger Syndrome. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 43(4), 891–910. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-012-1633-6

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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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