Navigating Sensory Differences

Brenda Dater, MSW, MPH

Brenda Dater, MSW, MPH

About the Author

Brenda Dater, MSW, MPH, is the executive director at AANE and the author of Parenting Without Panic. Brenda is a mom of three, and her eldest is an Autistic transgender woman. Brenda has facilitated parent support groups for over 20 years and thoroughly enjoys creating an environment where parents can find the support, information, and the community they need.

For Autistic individuals or others with sensory processing differences, sensory experiences can vary a great deal from what a neurotypical person might experience. More than just a slight irritant, some sensory sensitivities can increase anxiety, cause pain, and require a tremendous amount of energy to manage. That energy is then no longer available for work, school, enjoying a favorite pastime, or interacting with others. Sensory differences can also provide an incredible source for self-regulation and calm. Navigating these differences is not always straightforward.

Sensory Aversions

An older Autistic man told me about what it felt like to have his sensory needs ignored as a child. He shared that he couldn’t stand to be touched, especially on his head. Haircuts would leave him shaking in the moment and mute afterwards. He avoided showers because the water felt like hail pellets embedding themselves into his scalp. Although he knew his family loved him, they thought he was overreacting. They also hoped that making him go through the experience repeatedly would desensitize him so that he could take a shower or get a haircut without having so much difficulty.

Sometimes sensory processing can shift and change as a person gets older. But desensitization doesn’t always work and can make Autistic individuals feel more anxious. It may also reinforce society’s message that Autistic differences have to be hidden or eliminated rather than acknowledged, accepted, and accommodated.

Sensory Comfort

On the other hand, some sensory processing differences can be calming. My daughter used to chew her shirt in middle school when she was stressed. Chewing helped her feel calmer and focused. After multiple meetings with her school team, they agreed that she could chew gum at school even though it wasn’t allowed in general. This solution gave her the sensory experience she needed, but took away the discomfort of wearing a wet shirt and removed the social stigma.

Sensory Navigation

When sensory experiences become an issue, it is important to take a thoughtful approach. Here are three key actions to support sensory needs.

  1. Validate the sensory experience. None of us can know exactly what someone else’s sensory experience is like.
  2. Take time to analyze the sensory issue. How is this sensory difference affecting everyone involved, and is the situation preventable or not?
    • If the sensory issue is unavoidable, like waiting in a crowded, noisy line at the airport, consider coping strategies like noise canceling headphones and an engaging phone app to help mitigate the distress this circumstance might cause.
    • If the sensory aversion is not required, consider eliminating it altogether. If singing “Happy Birthday” prompts screaming or tears from an Autistic child, it doesn’t have to be a feature at their birthday party, or you can step out of the room if attending someone else’s gathering. Giving careful thought about whether certain experiences are truly necessary can provide a great deal of freedom.
    • Sometimes sensory aversions and comforts are in conflict. What is calming to one person, like listening to music so loudly it can be heard by people nearby, might be aversive to someone else. Accept and support that both experiences are valid responses. In this case, both needs could be discussed all together to brainstorm solutions. Can, for instance, the individuals with opposing sensory needs move farther away from each other? Is there an alternative that will satisfy the need and not create the aversion?
  3. And last, but not least, the Autistic person should have the agency and opportunity to offer the solutions that work for them.

By approaching sensory differences with patience and compassion, we can create truly inclusive spaces where Autistic individuals feel like they belong.

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