Written by Loren Snow
Content warning: self-harm
For instance, I am undersensitive to pain and often don’t notice if I’m injured but I’m also oversensitive to sound and light meaning these can hurt (like pain should!).
Well, pain tells us when something is harmful to our bodies. It tells us to avoid, to run and escape, and when not to stress a healing part of ourselves. So it’s very useful for our survival! Nociception is your nervous system’s process of encoding painful stimuli. When you receive painful stimulus, it is nociception that converts that pain to a molecular signal and characterises that signal to trigger the appropriate defense response. As someone who is undersensitive to it, I can tell you that cycling on broken bones and not realising it is not good, or forgetting you’re injured and jumping and skipping and stressing your healing body is not ideal.
If you’re undersensitive to pain you might not notice when you are hurt and cause further injury. You might:
This doesn’t mean someone doesn’t feel pain or that their body isn’t experiencing it. It is to do with how their nervous system processes those painful sensations from the body. The sensations are still processed, but may be expressed differently, or only register when the pain is really acute.
I have that issue: often pain has to be intense for me to register it but, when I do, I become aware that my body has been through a battle and the pain must be dealt with immediately. This could seem like I’m overreacting or I could suddenly react to an injury from a different day.
Well besides being conscious of your body and checking for signs of injury after potential harm, there isn’t a lot that helps. There is, however, a lot you can do for those you care about, such as:
If you’re oversensitive to pain you might find even small things cause a lot of pain. You might have been misdiagnosed with a physical health condition due to daily pain. Or you might be used to people dismissing your pain and suggesting you’re being over the top.
Being oversensitive is a literal pain and so you might:
Someone’s ability to recognise their own pain changes as they age. In young children, they may have a harder time as they’re still growing and part of growth for Autistic children is learning what’s a sensory sensation, an emotional sensation, and what’s a physical one.
This can be harder still due to being sensorily overwhelmed by things like school, not understanding their own emotions yet, and that Autistic people sometimes have developmental delays. The silver lining being that in adulthood they may be better at noticing pain and looking after their bodies better.
Sadly, being oversensitive to pain may look like various physical health conditions or lead to a diagnosis of one. Autistic people are also more likely to suffer from conditions causing pain such as Ehlers-Danlos syndromes, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, other gastrointestinal disorders, Diabetes, and Fibromyalgia.
Autistic people can already have a harder time figuring out how they feel. When physical or sensory sensations are put into the mix, they can very easily get confused with emotional sensations. Our sense of pain is also connected to our senses of touch, temperature, and proprioception. So if someone is oversensitive to one of these, it might show up as pain-seeking or -avoiding.
Might someone be self-harming to get pain as they are undersensitive or experience it pleasurably? I work with lots of Autistic patients in hospital settings that have self-harming behaviours. I also see a lot of parents struggling with this in their children. It’s usually never due to them seeking out pain for pain: it’s usually due to them being overwhelmed and unable to cope and using pain to replace another, more unpleasant, sensation. In these cases, the strategy is really to identify what is causing them distress, such as by figuring out their sensory profile, and by reducing or adding sensory simulation to remove or replace the unpleasant one. Please know it can take time for the self-harming behaviour to stop as it may have become a habit – safe, and familiar.
Loren Snow is an Autism consultant with a decade of experience teaching Autistic people, their families, and professionals in England’s National Health Service. Over this time they’ve taught and supported tens of thousands to understand autism and live better lives. They’re Autistic and ADHD themselves so know firsthand the challenges that these individually can bring to someone’s life. They have over 100 videos on their YouTube, some of which explain the above and other senses so please take a look here. You can also find out more about them and the work they do on their personal website.
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