Making Sense of Sensory — Part Three

Retinal neurons

“Structure of the Mammalian Retina” by Santiago Ramon y Cajal, c. 1900

“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!






9 responses to this post.

  1. Haha, that was a nice surprise… you uploaded this while I was on the comments page for Part 2, and when I came back to the main page there was suddenly a Part 3! Yayness :D

    I’ve been aware of your blog for a few months now, but finally taking the chance to dive in. Very appreciative of all you have to say. Speaking of which, the first post that I came across was “Q is for Quiet Hands…”, and I have to tell you it Changed. My. Life. Partly for the nudge to accept my own body language, and partly for the Mel Baggs quote about burnout…. OMG. I’m 32 and recently self-diagnosed, and I sure as hell am dealing with burnout from passing as NT all these years. Holy friggin hell, that hit home and explained a lot. (And it was a sort of birthday present, as well… literally first thing on my birthday, 12:05 AM … I took it as a good omen!)

    So anyway, thanks :D

  2. Interesting. I just went to watch that video, and I TOTALLY noticed the [thing I wasn’t supposed to see]…. because I couldn’t follow the movement of the players, and wasn’t able to count the passes. I just sort of sat there blinking.

    Which I’d never really thought about before, since I have other reasons for not enjoying sports, but following that sort of visual movement is difficult/overwhelming for me. (I managed to count the passes on the second try, however.) I also find movie action sequences to be very difficult to follow… usually I just kind of tune out until it’s over. Bla, bla, whatever :p

    I will also note that the first time I watched Star Wars, I actually got motion sick… during the scene where the X-wings are flying around the Death Star and navigating that trench to hit that one weak spot.

    I also tend to get visually overstimulated in a general sense… in theory, I enjoy “artist dates” to go explore town and admire some pottery/textiles/interesting buildings and what have you… but in practice it’s very easy to get oversaturated and exhausted. Thrift shopping and Pinterest are also frequent sites of oversaturation :)

    But in general, proprioception, tactile and auditory are my big three difficulties :)

    • I was fine with the Star Wars movies from the late 70s, but I can’t watch the newer Star Wars movies because they overwhelm me visually, make me feel ill, and at the end of the film, I had no idea what I had just watched.mimcouldnt have given a plot synopsis for any amount of money.

      I have proprioception issues, definitely. I’ve been saving that sense to write in a bit because my struggles baffle me so much I’m still shaping the words for it in my head.

  3. Posted by Alice on January 12, 2016 at 6:39 pm

    Fascinating video.

  4. This is a fascinating topic.

    I have a very narrow arc of focus in which I actually notice detail (for example, while typing this it’s about the size of 3-4 letters on the screen). It’s not that I don’t see the rest of what’s in front of me, it’s that I don’t register any detail except for what I’m looking directly at.

    The effects of this include not seeing something like a face as a whole because I’m only noticing one feature at a time, or not being aware of changes in my environment (such as different sheets on the bed or items being moved).

    One result is that I usually move my gaze around while I’m walking, scanning the ground in front of me and objects in my vicinity. I don’t often notice detail unless I consciously examine something; it’s more like an impression of size and color.

    Movement is distracting because it grabs my focus, capturing my attention and preventing me from noticing what else is around me. I find it difficult to hold a conversation when there is a TV on as much because of the perceived motion on the screen as the auditory interference. Normally I watch the speaker’s mouth to gain hints–lip-reading–and when my focus is diverted I miss more words.

    I’m convinced it’s an effect that arises from my brain’s processing of the visual input rather than any defect in my eyes or the transmission of their signals to the brain: this is supported by my consistent eye test results going back years (slight astigmatism not requiring correction, otherwise good).

  5. Hmm. I wonder if this has anything to do with why I was never able to see a single image in a single one of those “Magic Eye” posters that were all there age in the 90s… Great post.

    • My failure to see anything in a Magic Eye poster is probably more to do with astigmatism, When I needed glasses anyway in my forties, I was flabbergasted that the real world was as 3-D as a computer game when I put on the mockups!

      And in the video, I missed 2 passes, either when I was distracted by the passing gorilla or (more plausibly) right at the beginning when I was still figuring out what to look for. I have that with moving things: my eyes and brain needs some adjustment.

  6. all the rage**

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