Hypersensitive, Hyperfocused and Ready for ‘Hijack’: An Autistic Experience of Sensory Anxiety

Sensory overwhelming glare caused by fibre optic lights

Written by Amy Adams

Each of us experience the world, at least in part, through our senses. Sensory processing is the process by which our nervous system receives, organises, and interprets incoming sensory information.

Sensory information includes what we see, hear, smell, taste, touch and our sense of movement, balance, and perception of interoceptive cues (internal body sensations).  Our sensory processing systems are there to help us figure out how to respond to our environments and our body.

Most peoples brains filter out sensory information that is safe to ignore – that is, sensory input that does not pose a threat. In doing so, they can focus on information that is important and disregard sensory information that is unimportant.

Autistic brains work a bit differently. The two most well-known sensory processing differences that we might experience are heightened (hyper) sensitivity or muted (hypo) sensitivity to sensory signals. We may even experience heightened sensitivity to some forms of sensory input, and muted sensitivity to another.

Being Autistic myself, I experience heightened sensitivity to visual, auditory, olfactory, and tactile input. In other words, my eyes feel like they are burning when I go outside without sunglasses on. I am easily overwhelmed or distracted by visual clutter or movement in my periphery. I could write a whole essay on the different sounds that disrupt my sensory processing system and make it near impossible to carry on with daily tasks.

Noises particularly have caused many meltdowns for me, where Ive been rendered unable to function. Certain smells, such as perfumes or some scented candles, give me an instant headache. The feeling of dog hairs on my skin, clothing around my neck, scratchy textures, or lumps in my bedding are more than bothersome.

A way that I have personally come to understand my sensory processing differences is through the lens of monotropism.

Monotropism is a theory introduced by Dinah Murray, Mike Lesser, and Wenn Lawson in 2005. According to the theory, Autistic people tend to have monotropic minds, whereas most people have polytropic minds. People with polytropic minds can easily attend to several activities, pieces of information, or issues at any given point in time. A polytropic brain can flexibly shift their attention across multiple pieces of input (including sensory input), without being overcome with any single thing that enters their awareness.

Conversely, a monotropic brain thrives when it can process one channel of input at a time. Distributing our attention across multiple sources of input might take immense effort or feel unnatural. Whatever we are focused on tends to draw our attention in intensely, leaving fewer cognitive resources for whatever lies outside of our focus tunnel.

What does this have to do with my sensory processing differences? Well, I feel that this theory explains my sensory experiences well.

My monotropic brain prefers intense focus on relatively few things at any given point in time, giving me fewer mental resources to deal with outside input.

By outside input, I mean anything that attempts to pull my attention away from the object/subject of my focus. Outside input can therefore be experienced as intrusive if it captures my attention and I am unable to tune it out.

Let me provide an example. A few years back, I was sitting a university exam for my psychology degree. I was in this intense state of hyper-focus, writing my answers and feeling good about the flow state I entered. Then, the person sitting the exam next to me started tapping their pencil on the desk. My attention was torn away from my writing and shifted entirely to the sound and peripheral vision of the pencil tapping. This attention shift was involuntary; I could not find a way to block out the sensory input. It was distressing to have my attention so focused on something that I did not even want to be attending to at all.

This is how the theory of monotropism explains my sensory sensitivities and associated overwhelm. It is a combination of:

  • the discomfort of my attention being drawn away from where it wants to be;
  • a tendency to experience something intensely when it does enter my awareness; and
  • this whole process being beyond my control.

I cannot simply adjust to the new input and filter it out as irrelevant or unthreatening. Until the input stops or I find a way to block it out, I am overcome by it. It is the intensity with which I experience unwanted sensory input that causes me pain and anxiety.

There is a sense of my consciousness being hijackedwhen certain sensory triggers enter my awareness.

For example, think about a smoke detector going off and you cannot get it to stop. During that experience, you may not be able to think of anything else. The sensory input is so intense that you cannot simply ignore it and go back to what you were doing. This is how I experience certain types of sensory input that most people wouldnt even register as there, or bothersome, in the first place.

Its worth noting that my responses to sensory input are context specific.

The level of sensory anxiety or overwhelm I experience is very much dependent on the environment, what I am doing, who I am around, and my emotional state at the time.

That sense of being hi-jackedby unwanted input tends to happen when I am focused, or trying to focus, on something important to me. It also happens when my base-line level of stress is high, for example.

Using this understanding of my sensory processing as something dynamic helped me to incorporate strategies that make life easier. For instance, I choose quiet, solo environments to do work or tasks requiring focus. I incorporate sensory blockers such as headphones, earplugs, and sunglasses to minimise unwanted input.

I also put a lot of time into emotional self-care, to lower my baseline level of stress. Whilst I will always experience an intensely sensitive sensory system that comes with both sensory joys and overwhelm, these strategies help.

I therefore believe that the importance of environmental accommodations and support to understand our sensory-based needs cannot be understated.

As Alexander Den Heijer put it, When a flower doesnt bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.

About the author

Amy Adams, is an AuDHD Counsellor and Founder of Finding Autism – Counselling & Therapy. She is passionate about services for Autistic people by Autistic people. You can find out more about her counselling and therapy service at www.findingautism.com.au


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