Neurotypical nervous systems, wired for complex social lives, allow for effective sensory gating. This means most humans automatically filter out stimuli deemed unimportant (background noise), so they can process sensory information of interest. (1) Autistic people have evolved heightened sensory perception, which enables us to sense and perceive things in our environment that were virtually invisible to group-foraging humans. My autistic nervous system takes in all sensory information intensely, at inconsistent levels, so that I often struggle to distinguish a co-worker’s voice from nearby chatter, or the din of a television, or radio. Excessive light, heat, and humidity in my environment can further complicate this neurological process to the point that voices sound garbled and I experience disruptions in my physical coordination.
Many aspects of our society, which was not designed with sensory processing differences in mind, overstimulate autistic nervous systems, causing or contributing to sensory overload. Some of these environments are avoidable, like restaurants and coffee shops. Grocery stores, schools, and work environments that center neurotypical culture are part of daily life for most people; this is where heightened senses function as disability, as it is the barriers within society that disable us.
Disabled persons, as defined by the United Nations, are “those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others”. (2) For those of us with heightened senses, buildings that don’t implement inclusive design are exclusionary by nature, acting as barriers to employment. Following my interests has led me to work in such environments. Learning to adapt has become crucial to my survival.
Each day at work, one of my self-care objectives is to reach the end of the day with minimal sensory disruptions, as these disruptions can result in tinnitus, mutism, meltdowns, and shutdowns—all of which can end my workday prematurely. This goal often requires me to avoid unnecessary social interactions. I gravitate towards low-stimulation environments. Common areas, like open-office spaces and break rooms, are significantly more challenging than lab spaces, where I spend most of my time, in solitude, with some level of control over the sensory environment.
Nicotine has been reported to correct sensory gating deficits, as this commonly consumed chemical causes nicotinic receptors to release nitric oxide, which mediates sensory inhibition, leading to suppression of stimuli. (2) I use nicotine via tobaccoless flavor pouches in combination with caffeine as alternatives to prescription stimulants. Glasses with blue-light filtering lenses not only make screens more tolerable, but also lower the intensity of migraine-inducing fluorescent lights, while earbuds block out environmental noise altogether.
Though heightened sensory perception, a remnant from our ancestral past, once allowed for exceptional tracking and stalking of prey, food processing, terrain mapping, and systemizing of fauna, this exceptional ability now leaves us overwhelmed by a society that ignores our needs.
Reser, J. E. (2011). Conceptualizing the Autism Spectrum in Terms of Natural Selection and Behavioral Ecology: The Solitary Forager Hypothesis. Evolutionary Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1177/147470491100900209
2 Cromwell, H. C., Mears, R. P., Wan, L., & Boutros, N. N. (2008). Sensory gating: a translational effort from basic to clinical science. Clinical EEG and neuroscience, 39(2), 69–72. https://doi.org/10.1177/155005940803900209
What a wonderful article – I love this level of insight into my own autism framed in a way that is accessible to people who might not understand how it feels themselves.
You might want to try Davis Autism Approach developed by a severely autistic man, who was non-verbal until he was 17. He figured out how to harmonize his sensory perception.