Various organizations and venues have recently provided “autism-friendly” and “sensory-friendly” events. This is certainly a welcome trend because it not only addresses an issue that is nearly universal in the autism community but also helps promote autism awareness among the public. Much as these organizations are to be commended for their efforts and certainly deserve the gratitude of the autism community, such events can, at best, accommodate only some of the numerous sensory sensitivities that autistics live with.
These events usually emphasize reduced visual and auditory stimuli (e.g., bright or flashing lights, loud noises, and certain types of sounds, as well as large crowd sizes), but these are only a few of the things that constitute sensory violations for autistics; in particular, they only address two of the five traditional senses (sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell), not to mention vestibular (balance and motion) and proprioception (body position and movement). It is certainly reasonable to focus on these two senses because, apart from corresponding to the more common and best-known autistic sensitivities, light and sound are the two most pervasive stimuli in that they completely permeate our environment – it is very difficult, if not impossible to avoid them in our daily lives. This is also true of smell, and some events request that those attending not use perfume, cologne, lotions, or deodorants that are scented with strong fragrances. Violations of the other senses can be avoided to a greater degree.
As to the different senses, not to mention potential violations, this recalls two familiar sayings. It is often said within the autism community that “when you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” Also, we have all heard that “you can’t please everyone.” Both especially apply where autistics and sensory sensitivities are concerned, given the various stimuli individuals are sensitive to. In my case, I was lucky to be spared severe sensitivities of the two common kinds (although there were some in early childhood) but had others that substantially affected my life and that I live with to this day; in particular, I have severe sensory-based eating issues (taste, texture, etc.), as well as clothing sensitivities (tactile): I eat from a children’s menu and regard Temple Grandin as a fashion icon (minus the cowboy paraphernalia). Sensory issues were finally included in the diagnostic criteria for ASD in DSM-5, and it has been said that just about every autistic has some sensory sensitivities, obscure though they may sometimes be.
The Need for Sensory Sensitivity Accommodation
In many cases, the solution to a sensory violation is eliminating the offending stimulus – some form of accommodation is needed. In some instances, this is easily done; in others, some ingenuity may be required. A good example involves my early childhood sensitivity to bright flashing lights; particularly, I could not tolerate a camera flash. Pictures of me were either taken outdoors, or I closed my eyes or had a very startled facial expression. When taken to a photo studio for a portrait shot, I was so terrified of the camera that it looked like the picture would not be taken. However, once the photographer learned that the flash was the problem, she addressed it by using high-intensity flood lamps and a long exposure time (slow shutter speed and perhaps a higher film speed), eliminating the need for a flash. As a competent photographer, she knew how to do these things. She had encountered this issue before – I was probably not her first undiagnosed autistic subject! This is an excellent illustration of how, with a little cleverness, a serious sensory violation can be eliminated.
In other cases, the participation of a larger community is required. As mentioned earlier, this is done where scents and fragrances are involved, and those in attendance at events where autistics with this sensitivity are present are requested to refrain from using such. Another example is often seen at autism presentations where some individuals are sensitive to the sound of hand clapping. In fact, I had a childhood sensitivity to loud, sudden sounds such as explosions. In these instances, the audience is requested to wave or flap their hands in the air instead of applauding the speaker.
Technology to the Rescue
A few things that presented serious sensory violations to some autistics in the past are no longer problematic, thanks to subsequent technological developments. Shortly after my initial diagnosis, I read an article that mentioned the sensitivity of some autistics to the motion of an elevator. I immediately recalled having had the same issue in my childhood. I also remember my family telling me that, when taken in an elevator as an infant, I started screaming uncontrollably the moment it started moving. I had a significant vestibular sensitivity. It was addressed by taking either the escalator or the stairs. As I got older, I somehow learned to tolerate this feeling, unpleasant as it was. Eventually, it bothered me less and less. I did not realize that, during that time, elevator control technology had reduced the large accelerations and decelerations when the elevator started and stopped moving to the point where they became less and less perceptible.
As a New Yorker, I especially remember the first time I went to the observation deck at the World Trade Center shortly after it opened in the 1970’s. The tour guide told us about the design of the elevators, which very rapidly ascended 110 stories with little perceptible effect. I was very pleasantly surprised when I barely even noticed the motion. From that time on, that was usually the case when I rode in an elevator, except occasionally in an older building. This was a triumph of control systems engineering: what was once a substantial sensory violation for some autistics had been effectively eliminated, to everyone else’s benefit. I have not heard of any such case in my years of involvement with the ASD community. Being an engineer and on the autism spectrum, I can appreciate this.
Other Technology-Based Issues
A few sensory violations are the result of modern technologies. One of the best-known involves fluorescent lighting. A feature of fluorescent lamps is that, unlike old incandescent bulbs, the flicker of their light in response to the 60-cycle-per-second AC power is within the limits of human perception. Although most people can barely (if at all) notice this, let alone be bothered by it, some autistics were strongly affected, to the extent that they needed to avoid environments having fluorescent lights or else wear dark glasses or hats that reduced exposure to such. With the development of the compact fluorescent lamp (CFL), however, the operation was increased to over 20,000 cycles per second – well beyond the limits of visual perception. This technology was later retrofitted to existing commercial fixtures (using electronic ballasts). Although some autistics are made uncomfortable by fluorescent lamps’ spectrum (color), I have heard much less about this being an issue than it had been years before. These technologies were designed for economic efficiency considerations but benefited the autism community, even if unintentionally.
Recently, LED lighting technologies have replaced incandescent and fluorescent lights. These devices have no visible flicker (when properly designed and operated) and can be made in various spectral ranges and colors. As such, they can be designed to prevent just about any autistic sensory violation (if they don’t already). The engineers who design and develop these technologies will need to take the issues of autistic sensory sensitivities into account in the future.
Also common are sensitivities to certain types of sounds, particularly continuous high-pitched ones, such as the feedback that often happens in public sound systems (a problem at many autism events). This is an annoyance for everyone and must be eliminated however possible. Another violation that was often reported involved the high-pitched “squeal” from older television receivers and computer monitors. These used a cathode ray tube (CRT) that displayed the picture and was operated at high voltages (around 20,000 volts) with a horizontal line frequency of 15,750 cycles per second. This produced a substantial sound within the upper limit of human hearing (20,000 cycles). Once again, this might be annoying, but for some autistics, it constituted a major sensory violation – they often could not sit close to a TV or even use a computer (since one had to be directly in front of the monitor).
Yet again, technology came to the rescue with the development of flat-screen LCD and LED displays. These do not require high voltages or emit any high-pitched sounds. As before, a technology developed for entirely different reasons eliminated another sensory violation.
Given the variety of sounds that permeate our environment and constitute sensory violations for some autistics, technological solutions to this problem would be most welcome. Noise-cancelling headphone technologies have the potential to help here. Some autistics already use these, and the technology can probably be adapted to the needs of individuals with specific sensitivities. Once again, engineers working on such technologies will need to consider these issues.
I can only conclude by saying that the issue of sensory sensitivities is one of the most ubiquitous and varied issues faced by the autism community. Consequently, much must be done to address it.
Karl Wittig, PE, is Advisory Board Chair for Aspies for Social Success (AFSS). Karl may be contacted at email@example.com.