Sensory Sensitivity

Originally titled,

“I Hid in a Closet: Part One”

Need some music before you start reading? Lately I’ve fallen down the rabbit holes of binaural beats, and since autistic people love to share their eccentric likes and dislikes—or this autistic woman loves to share, anyway 😉—so here you are:

Story Time

😱 How I Hid in a Closet 😱

I’ve had a week to think, exploring ideas from deep within through more than 10,000 words of writing—(and not an inkling of grading, oops,) (it is spring break,) (excuses)—and I cannot put my finger on what happened that cloudy morning, when my mom exploded and taxied away from my home.

I just know it ended with me in a closet.

So I told myself, after today, tomorrow, and Tuesday—after putting this three-part reflection to my keyboard—I’d leave the story here, so I could move on, instead of thinking in spirals, trying to find the pattern, the answer to this koan called family.

Note writing this three-part story of my disconnection with family may have been triggered by my mother taking an early plane home, but the issue obviously goes much deeper than that.

Like most family tensions, roots can be traced to childhood.

In this case, my childhood.

But we’ll explore that in the 2nd and 3rd parts of this post.

For this 1st part, let’s set the stage:

  • About a week ago, March 25th, when my mom—who I love to the moon and back, if I had enough money to travel to the moon—flew in from Idaho to help me make favors for my upcoming wedding,
  • then she woke up at 5 a.m. to answer a phone call from her sister,
  • and she got out of bed to pee.

Since the bathroom is at the heart of the house, connected to the master bedroom, I heard her telling her sister, “There’s no toilet paper,” which made me think, “Shit, there’s no toilet paper; I should get some for her.”

We have no boundaries in our family, which means walking into the bathroom while she’s peeing is fine, especially if it’s to help her find where we hide the toilet paper from DeeJay. (Later, it’ll occur to me that boundaries are exactly the issue at hand; but in my half-asleep stupor, they’re not on the radar.)

2018-02-23_10-56-34_953
The Complication: DeeJay, toilet paper slash beetle slayer

Given my anxiety, depression, and sleeping disorders, I’m a cocktail of cranky disasters right out of bed, so even though I meant well—grabbing the toilet paper from the tall cabinet, offering it to her, then getting out of the way to wait until she’s done, so I could pee, too—even though I walked on egg shells, as best as I could—

She shined her cellphone in my face.

I screamed, “Fuck!” 

My amygdala is raw, tiny, and fallible.

Later, when she bum-rushed through our bedroom—instead of taking the route through the kitchen, to the living room, like every other guest in the back room has managed to do—again I screamed, “Fuck,” and perhaps with more gusto, because bright lights make overstimulated people scream things.

I may have mentioned she should hang up on her sister for calling in the middle of the night. I could have been nicer about that, I’m sure. I can always be nicer about anything, when there is godlike light shining in my eyes. But I’ve never received HALLELUJAH PRAISE THE LIGHT very well, which is why, at night, I read on my Kindle, rather than my cell. Paint me sensory sensitive, I guess?

Hell, I was about to get married. Paint me bridezilla, too.

But there is always so much guilt surrounding every awareness of my social-emotional skills; the price I paid for the crime of yelling at 5am cellphone lights was like a Babylonian beheading for stealing bread.

I’ll tell the rest of this story with a YouTube, since I’ve documented the stage I need for the next two parts of this post, where I’ll go further back, into the autistic childhood…

All it takes is a beautiful fake smile to hide an injured soul, and they will never notice how broken you really are.

—Robin Williams

Learn About Autism

😶 What is Overstimulation? 🤯

But let’s step away from the storytelling to define this autistic experience called overstimulation. It’ll be needed to explore the childhood side of this mess.

Overstimulation is a daily problem in my life, manifesting from something as simple as backseats in a concert, flash photography at a family gathering, or a terrible fart.

Okay, lied about the last one.

I can handle terrible farts.

Sometimes.

But a fluorescent light—like those lights the low-funded schools and small businesses are reluctant to replace?—often flicker at frequencies that give me migraines. And that’s just example #333 of how I can become overstimulated via merely existing. Just by going to work. Just by trying to be a member of society.

And this is why, currently, I believe we live in a neurotypically privileged world. I also, unfortunately, don’t see it changing for a long time—if ever. It may very well be that the first fully autistic experience won’t be available until virtual realities can substitute the “real world” experience completely.

All technologies—all places of learning and dining, etc.—cater to the neurotypical experience; not the sensory sensitive, autistic experience.

It can make it difficult to live.

Just daily living.

Life stuff.

Overstimulation can mean temporarily blindness, deafness, and the deafening of senses we don’t typically think about:

  • Too much heat?—🔥”Where is the bathtub, I need the bathtub—”🔥
  • Too much cold?—❄”Why do people LIVE HERE?”❄
  • Too much balancing?—Don’t even get me started on the hot air balloon story.
  • Too many emotions?—Take a number; my brain DMVs those badboys. It’s not uncommon for me to react on delay, because I’m still chewing on the last feeling.

Neurotypicals often react to this information by saying, “Oh, I have these issues too,” but this is similar to any other form of privilege: being able to relate to the experience is not the same as not being able to ever, never, ever find reprieve from the experience, to live a life in a constant whirlpool.

And my amygdala’s reaction is absolutely a whirlpool, a mad alchemist admixture of pain and conditioning: because this pain not only hurts, it often leads to social situations that hurt even more, like my mother driving away in a taxi.

It leads to me leaving poetry readings after only a couple hours, because trying to listen to someone through a din of others talking, differentiating their voice from the wah-wah-wah reverberation of other voices, is similar to listening to someone talking underwater.

It leads me to missing out on the friends and/or family gatherings, because of the images left behind in the echo of taxis, of leaving early, of generally appearing to not be as amicable of a person as other neurotypical people.

Learn About Autism

🧠 The Amygdala 🧠

If you’re not sure about the amygdala, here’s a good introduction:

My amygdala is different from the neurotypical amygdala, at a developmental (i.e., physical) level. My amygdala leads to me running away from social events where too many people touch my shoulder, want a hug, want to talk for too long, until I am confused by all the facial expressions, mixed social messages, noise.

My amygdala leads to me missing what’s going on in the movie, because someone is flashing the same godlike light my mother invoked, cellphone-in-the-dark, their phonelight like a dragon staring at me from the front aisle of Star Wars, so now I have to figure out where all the exit doors are located, like the announcement at the beginning of the movie told me to do, and I forget the flick and the popcorn right in front of me.

A Societal Conversation

💥A High-Stimuli World💥

Part of the reason I designed our blackout bedroom was because of Paul Bogard’s The End of Night; and the only reason I read that book was to understand light more, so I could develop better game plans for when situations like the aforementioned story with my mother happened. (Affiliate link below.)

So I’m keenly aware of the weakness behind my sensory sensitivity. I’m self-aware to reflect, do research, and grow into both a more acceptable and more autistic person.


I suppose, in an ideal world, this would work both ways.

The autistic person wouldn’t be the only one trying to understand sensory sensitivity. The neurotypical world would try to wrap its head around it, too; starting from parents, all the way up to the responsible citizen.

While this is only a one-sided account of a story—and again, in the next two posts, I’ll lift the hood to show the childhood wiring beneath, because that’s the major factor here, not the mystery of who dun it—I think I’ve fairly illustrated, in my storytelling, that if autism was better understood, many misunderstandings could be avoided, and the great walls of neurotypical privilege could slowly crumble down.

I don’t think most people truly think about how fundamentally different reality must be for the autistic brain; what sensory sensitivity brings to the table, when interacting with an autistic mind.

And why don’t people know about this?

If you were to tell me, it’s because autism isn’t prevalent enough to warrant awareness for sensory sensitivity, I would cite that autism is far more common than you think. Our current statistic is that 1 in 68 children have autism—and that statistic is very white, and very male. Autism is more often than not missed in girls (thus the inaccurate assumption that it’s four times as likely in boys), and autistic people of color fly under the radar, since their public schools are not as well-equipped to identify them.

So what if I were to tell you 1 in every 25 children have the autism gene?

Would you think it’s a worthy conversation then?

Sensory sensitivity means we autistic people are wired to experience the world fundamentally differently, in every sense, in every moment, in every engagement, in every thought and every love; and that heightened experience—combined with the social-emotional issues in the autistic amygdala—can be its own special form of heaven, as well as its own special form of hell.

Currently, our public awareness of this layer of differability is so low, hell is more frequent than heaven. Then we wonder why depression and anxiety are frequent comorbids of the autistic life.

To look over an autistic person’s proneness to overstimulation—or to miss out on the wondrous details, the interesting perspectives, sensory sensitive autistic people can bring to the world—is a tragedy I hope the 21st century leaves behind.

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