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Autistic Sensory Sensitivity on Campus: Part Two, Real-World Examples

This is the second 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 the first post in this series, I described some of the research on autistic sensory processing and provided something of a framework that we might use to understand our sensory experiences. I know it was a bit long, but I think it is helpful for us to have a good understanding of the fundamentals of how sensory sensitivity works.

However, there’s a bit of a gap between the categories we use in research and the actual lived experiences of autistic people. To illustrate this, let’s have a look at some of the very different experiences of sensory hyper-sensitivity that different autistic people have reported in just one modality: hearing.

First, Temple Grandin (who has written some excellent material on sensory processing) describes being hyper-sensitive to loud and sudden sounds, like alarms and the popping of balloons (Grandin & Panek, 2014, p. 69). In contrast, while I also dislike loud sounds, including those of the sudden kind, I’m even more distressed by loud, continuous sounds, like large crowds in an indoor space. Some people especially find high-pitched sounds particularly disturbing; others don’t care about pitch as much.

examples sensory sensitivity campus

Other people can be distracted, aggravated, or perturbed by much subtler sensations. Jackson (2002, p. 74) reports difficulty with soft, echoing sounds in large spaces, like the rustling of exam papers, whereas I can quite honestly say that I’ve never found these softer background noises to be an irritant.

Others seem to experience terrible discomfort in response to a wider variety of stimuli. For example, Tammet (2006, pp. 26, 50, 68, 86-87) describes having aversive experiences in response to sudden, loud noises; having problems with large, noisy crowds; having trouble concentrating due to noise; and even experiencing considerable physical pain from the relatively soft sound of a manual toothbrush scratching over teeth during brushing.

Thus, even within a single sensory domain, it seems as though different people can be distressed by very different types of stimuli. In response to this, all I can say is that I’ll do my best to list some of the sensory stimuli on campus that might most commonly be experienced as aversive, but only you can say whether you are upset by any of them, and whether there are stimuli that distress you that I haven’t listed here.

You can hardly develop coping strategies if you’re not sure what you’re coping with!

Hearing

Spaces with large, noisy crowds are often a serious problem for autistic people with auditory sensory sensitivities. Student union buildings are very likely to have large, noisy crowds. Cafeterias and food outlets can be similarly problematic. Noisy crowds can also be found in the corridors outside of large lecture halls right before and after classes, and in some parts of college libraries that allow students to study together in groups. The activities and events colleges organize for new students at the beginning of each academic year can be associated with incredible amounts of sensory overstimulation and noise. In fact, I’m afraid that noisy crowds can be found in many places on university campuses

Many autistic people have trouble with background noises that can distract their attention away from important things like lectures and exams, or that prevent them from studying in dorms and the library (even in the theoretically quiet parts of the library). These sounds can also be quite aggravating. Some of the culprits here might include ventilation systems, slurping, chewing, the noises made by cutlery, whispered conversations from other students, and so forth.

Of course, many of us can also have problems with louder distracting noises. For example, some autistic people will have a lot of trouble bringing their attention back to a lecture after hearing a mobile phone ring.

You might also have trouble sleeping if you are disturbed by night-time noises. If you live in a campus residence, you may find that other students could stay up late making noise, or they might generate noise as they return late after drinking.

Some of us really can’t tolerate music, or specific kinds of music. This might be an issue in a campus residence or other shared space, depending on the compatibility of your music tastes with those of others around you.

I should probably mention that some autistic people can also have difficulty following another person’s speech in a fast conversation, especially in an overstimulating environment. That’s not really an example of hyper-sensitivity, but it might have to do with our ability to integrate and interpret sensory information, as well as difficulty focusing on one sensory stimulus and not being distracted by others.

Vision

One of the most common visual sensitivities is related to flickering lighting. Many autistic people are also distressed by bright lighting. Thus, fluorescent lights may be particularly problematic. Unfortunately, the lighting in college environments can often be bright, flickery, or both.

Some of us might also have aversive reactions to certain colours, particularly those colours of the bright and garish variety.

Smells

Perfumes and scented products can be a major issue for some autistic people.  Unfortunately, we will necessarily be surrounded by other people in college classes, and some of those other people will be wearing scented products.

Smells from other students’ lunches can be a cause of concern as well. This isn’t an issue confined to cafeterias and other eating areas: around mealtimes, students may bring smelly food into classrooms and eat it while they are waiting for the class to begin.

Touch

Clothing is one of the biggest tactile sensory issues. Some autistic people will have a strong preference for loose clothing; others might prefer tighter clothing. Many of us hate certain types of fabric (scratchy fabrics, synthetic fabrics – it varies from person to person).

Other people, if I can be so blunt, can also be a major issue. Many of us will be very uncomfortable when other people touch us, especially when that touch comes without warning.

Hygiene routines can also be associated with tactile sensory sensitivities. Do showers distress you, or hair washing? What about haircuts?

Temperature is often a serious sensory issue for autistic people. For example, I’ve never particularly liked warm weather, and I hate humidity. If you are moving to a college with a different climate, you should probably think about how that might affect you.

Now, what did I miss? Like I said, sensory experiences can be extremely variable and individual-specific, so I’m quite sure there are many, many things I haven’t covered here!  However, if you have comments or ideas, please go ahead and comment on this post. 

You might also like Patrick’s other posts on sensory processing at his blog.

References and Further Reading

Grandin, T., & Panek, R. (2014). The autistic brain: Helping different kinds of mind succeed. New York: Mariner Books. [Read Chapter 4]

Jackson, L. (2002). Freaks, geeks & Asperger syndrome: A user guide to adolescence. London, UK: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Madriaga, M. (2010). “I avoid pubs and the student union like the plague”: Students with Asperger syndrome and their negotiation of university spaces. Children’s Geographies, 8(1), 39–50. https://doi.org/10.1080/14733280903500166

Tammet, D. (2006). Born on a blue day: Inside the extraordinary mind of an autistic savant. New York: Free Press.

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

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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.

3 Comments

  1. I love this post and almost all of these have been an issue for me at some point or another including humidity (Ontario conferences in the summer are difficult for me). I generally avoid campus social functions that are not academic in nature (mixers, dances, concerts, parties and the like). In addition, sometimes I have ended up with lower attendance and needed permission/medical documentation to work from home during minor illnesses as those would exacerbate those sensory challenges. Worst situation I encountered was when a professor wanted a doctor’s note to avoid an attendance deduction and if I was in the condition to sit in a doctor’s office which is another busy public place with flickering lights I would have been attending class (thankfully my family doctor wrote a note explaining this and I didn’t have a repeat of that situation) Well said.

    1. Yes! Your comment about the doctor’s note dilemma reminds me again of how difficult it can be to convince other people that sensory sensitivities are real, and how easy it is for people without sensory differences to not understand how much they can affect the accessibility of spaces in everyday life.
      As for the illnesses exacerbating the issues, I’m actually going to discuss how other factors can affect sensory experiences in the third post from this sensory sensitivity series. Coming soon!

    2. Thanks! Your comment about the doctor’s note dilemma reminds me again of how difficult it can be to convince other people that sensory sensitivities are real, and how easy it is for people without sensory differences to not understand how much they can affect the accessibility of spaces in everyday life.
      As for the illnesses exacerbating the issues, I’m actually going to discuss how other factors can affect sensory experiences in the third post from this sensory sensitivity series. Coming soon!

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