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Sensitivities and Autism

Autism has traditionally been diagnosed by the observation of behaviours, which have long been considered to be the defining features of autism. Little, if any, attention has been paid to the environmental context of the individual and the role it plays in eliciting these behaviours, since the problem appears to lie with the autism, not the surroundings.

This approach effectively segregates autistic people from non-autistic people, leading parents and professionals to believe that these are pathological behaviours which need somehow to be corrected and controlled, rather than understood and accepted.

However, more recently our understanding of autism has greatly evolved, thanks in large part to more and more autistic people themselves describing their lived experience of autism “from the inside” – allowing us to progress from “autism awareness” towards “autistic awareness” and a neurodiversity viewpoint.

These insights have allowed us to grasp just how important it is to be attentive to the sensory circumstances the person finds themselves in, and how fundamental these interactions with their surroundings are to the autistic person’s well-being.

Autism + environment = behaviour

“The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this: A human creature born abnormally, inhumanly sensitive. To him... a touch is a blow, a sound is a noise, a misfortune is a tragedy, a joy is an ecstasy, a friend is a lover, a lover is a god, and failure is death.”

Pearl S Buck, Novelist, Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize Winner

This quote was not specifically about autism, but it captures well the heightened impact of the sensory and emotional experience of many autistic people.

Most of us are familiar with the idea of sensory sensitivities. We may have seen the (possibly neurodivergent?) child or adult wearing ear defenders to protect them from loud or sudden noises; we may even have experienced ourselves the irritating ticket in clothing which was so unbearably scratchy that we were obliged to remove it to wear the garment comfortably.

However, sensitivities in autistic terms tend to encompass a wider range and greater intensity, and to allow us to better understand and support autistic people we need to learn the different facets of the sensory and emotional environment from an autistic perspective. We need to bear in mind that autism is about different styles of interaction with the world, rather than being “impaired”.

In this set of articles, I will be describing and defining the different types of senses and examining what sensitivity in this context really means, as well as looking at the sensory and the emotional worlds, and how sensitivities apply in these contexts. I will also discuss the implications on how we understand and support autistic people in school, at work or in the home.

I hope you will enjoy reading them.

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