“What does it feel like to have sensory issues? What makes them better or worse?”
This is the second installment of a series of posts I’m doing because my answer to that question is not short and simple. And, as I opened the first blog post with, this series is not about autism and sensory issues in general. This post and series are about me explaining what I go through. There will be many similarities and many differences between what I experience and what others experience.
Part One is largely about my experience of the auditory world.
Part Two is about the things that make my life easier or more difficult, both with respect to hearing and generally concerning how I am treated. It is the case for every one of my senses that anything that increases m stress level also increases my difficulties with sensory processing and overload.
Part Three (this post you are reading now) is about my experience of the visual world.
Vision is possibly my second most important sense when it comes to integration issues. There are a number of things that overwhelm me, visually. I am privileged to be able to drive a vehicle safely, but I have many Autistic friends who cannot drive and visual processing is one of the bigger reasons why they can’t do it. (Difficulties with executive function or with rapid decision-making also rank high in the list of reasons why some Autistics cannot drive.) When I am tired and my vision begins disintegrating beyond the usual level, my visual processing is often the first sign that I need to get off the road and find a safe place to rest for a while. I like having this built-in warning system.
The most overwhelming visual sensation for me is rapid motion. This doesn’t affect driving a van, even at 70 miles per hour, because the kind of motion that overwhelms me doesn’t happen out on the road (although a storm can cause some visual distress if there are lots of things flying randomly around in the air. At that point, however, I tend to have bigger issues than visual processing to cope with.) There are two major categories of overwhelming motion: things that look like they’re coming at my face and things that mill around in a sort of Brownian manner. In the latter category, I include children. I am great with one kid, great with two kids, tolerable with three kids, completely overwhelmed with four or more kids. Imagine a children’s birthday party — they’re all gleeful, running from place to place, high on sugar, milling about randomly and at high speeds (usually with accompanying distressing sounds at that point.)
Lots of running, playing children remind me of bubbles in a boiling pot. They are random, unpredictable, and I can feel my anxiety levels rising. It has nothing to do with liking or disliking children — I love them, actually. but all that group moving around throws me off-kilter. Another rapid movement that is hard on me are those disco lights that spin around, casting spots of light all over the room. Even though there is a mathematical orderliness to those lights, the effect is random enough to set off my anxiety. I don’t have photosensitive epilepsy, but many of my friends do, as well as my late fiancé. I’ve met some Autistics who really love chaotic light and sound environments, including Rave parties, but I’ve met far more of us who can’t handle lots of fancy lights well at all. It’s better to err on the side of caution and not use flashing or spinning lights around us, but if you want to throw a party with overwhelming lights, make it clear what the lighting will be like and you may get some of those Autistics who need lots of extra visual stimulation coming to your event.
Think of sensory input needs as containers. An average person with a fairly mainstream set of sensory needs would have, say, a big 12-ounce beer glass for senses to collect in. They might get excited and happy when their glass overflows a little or they might find it unpleasant and back away from it, but most days of their lives their sensory inputs are just right to keep their glass sufficiently filled but not over-filled.
Someone like my friends who love Raves has a big bucket for sensory input. They want more input than people tend to get on an average day because they are so often walking around feeling like their visual bucket is echoingly empty. They might seek out flashing lights, bright colors, swoopy movements, and other visually stimmy things to fill up their bucket some more. They feel most comfortable when their buckets are filled but not overflowing, similar to the people who only have a beer glass to fill.
Someone on the other end of things — someone who gets visually overwhelmed like me (or much more than me) might just have a little espresso cup or some other very small container. The regular level of visual stimulation that makes beer glass people feel comfortable is way too much for someone with a demitasse. Everyday visual stimulation overflows and continues to pour out across the floor, leaving the person feeling overwhelmed and anxious.
I don’t quite have a demitasse, but my visual container is definitely smaller than a beer glass. I have, maybe, a juice glass of space for visual sensory. I love bright colors, but I get overwhelmed by too many of them (grocery store shelf.) My brain often interprets things coming toward my face as a threat (typical for many people) but reaches too far and misinterprets things that aren’t coming at my face as if they are. Also, I don’t just flinch from things coming at my face but I get a burst of adrenaline and a long-lingering anxiety afterwards. I can see things clearly to drive, but when I get tired the road starts to look like it is moving backward. I am quick to spot birds and other wild creatures when I’m out in nature but I often find myself on the trail watching for snakes and getting nervous because I am having such a hard time processing sticks and roots and leaves and rocks and other visual ground jumble quickly enough to see if there are snakes or fire ants or ankle-twisting holes in the ground along my path. (As a result, I walk a bit slowly in nature, which is not entirely a bad thing.)
When I walk into a room, especially a room I am unfamiliar with, I have to pause to let my eyes figure out what’s in the room. Sometimes this frustrates people I’m with as they want to go on in, find their seat, move forward with their day. I am blocking their way because it takes me a while to even figure out what is a seat. What is a table? What is a coat rack? What is a counter? What is a person? I know it sounds terribly stereotypical, but quite often I don’t see people at first and they gradually emerge from the visual chaos of a scene. I have walked right into people.
I’ve considered this situation to try to understand why it is that my vision can be so unreliable in some instances yet reliable enough to go birding or drive a vehicle in other cases. I think the big thing with driving is that the roads are so standardized. My brain knows what sort of visual patterns to expect and can sort them out quickly because a road is a road is a road with very little variation from Wyoming to Illinois to Louisiana. A room can have an infinite number of variations that must be sorted out visually. I can see everything there is to see, but I am noticeably slower at it than most people around me. The trade-off is that I seem to see more than most others, once my eyes and brain have had a full conversation about what we’re looking at.
Another difference I’ve noticed between my visual processing and that of many others is that I don’t see a lot of optical illusions. Often someone will post a picture and people respond with comments about it spinning wildly and making them nauseated and I look at it but don’t see anything moving at all. Dr. Olga Bogdashina wrote in Sensory Perceptual Issues in Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome that Autistic people often have “optical disillusions,” in that many of us are not visually fooled by optical illusions.
“Feigenberg (1986) suggests that what we see (feel, hear, etc.) is mostly something we are expecting to see (hear, feel, etc.) The brain does not need to process all the stimuli; it just ‘fills in the gaps’ and ‘predicts’ the final picture. That is why we are prone to illusions. The ability of the brain to ‘see’ before actually seeing is not restricted to vision. The same can be observed with other senses, for example, we can ‘hear’ or ‘feel’ what we are expecting to hear or feel.” Bogdashina, Sensory Perceptual Issues, p. 47
It seems to me that this is the benefit to the way I process visual information. I don’t fill in the gaps and predict as much as a non-autistic viewer does. It means it takes me longer to process visual information but it also means that the information that gets processed is somewhat more accurate a representation of what is actually “out there” in front of me as a result. Sure, I can still be fooled. This video, for example, fooled me the way it’s designed to fool everyone:
When you follow the instructions and don’t know what to expect, it will probably fool you, too. Now that I’ve seen the whole video, it doesn’t fool me. It can’t fool me – because I know.
As you can see, my visual issues are not as difficult as y auditory issues, but I still struggle with them. It is the slowness of processing that bothers me the most. I’m sure I miss out on a lot of opportunities because I don’t see them quickly enough. I prefer to be out in the country rather than in a city where things are moving around so much more quickly. I can’t handle crowds of people very well.
But I see amazing things that delight me every day. I see things that others pass by with barely a glance and I revel in them. When it comes to my visual processing, I mostly don’t see a problem because the trade-offs are so fulfilling for me. I imagine I might feel differently if my processing issues precluded me from driving a vehicle.
I’d love to see a conversation about visual processing in the comments here. Please do consider joining in the discussion and don’t feel that you need to agree with me or have processing like mine in order to participate. Thanks!