Is it blue and black or white and gold? Unless you've been hiding from the world for the past few days you are probably aware I am referring to a photo of a dress that has been flooding the internet. It shows an optical illusion showing how two peoples eyes can perceive colour in very different ways.
Sensory differences are something those on the autism spectrum are often all too familiar with and Sensory Processing Disorders are a common part of the condition. This week, while the debate about the dress colour rages, I wanted to share with you how many of us on the spectrum experience lots more than just colours differently.
Sitting around with friends late in the evening the conversation often turns to deep and random questions to ponder. How do you explain the colour ‘red’ to a blind person? How would a deaf person understand the concept of ‘loud’? Interesting thoughts to mull over but for us sat around the table, well we were all sensing the world in the same way right? Well not quite….
From seeing the a red apple our eyes send a message along out circuit of nerves where out clever brain cells get to work at deciphering it into something meaningful. Parts of your brain will fire into action and tell us that what we are seeing is indeed red, that’ll tell us if we like the colour, how bright it is, if it’s edible, if it could harm us an so on – all from a single signal from out eyes. This is what senses are all about, out brains translating the world around us into some meaningful information. There are so many more senses than the well known sight, sound, taste, touch and smell. We sense heat, time, balance, body position (close your eyes and touch your nose – how did you know where your hand was in space? This is called Proprioception), the list goes on. Our brain does a fantastic job at turning all of this into useful info to help us navigate the world around us.
We all have slight variations on how our brain handles this flood of information. Perhaps when looking at the red apple your brain say to you, ‘Ah look, a tasty fruit, I feel hungry,’ or maybe it says,’ Yeuk, I don’t like apples,’ either way your brain has almost instantly recognised the abject and told other parts of your body how to respond. But what if this doesn’t happen, what if our brain translates it more like, ‘an apple is edible but red is danger, release lots of adrenaline ready to run’
For those on the autism spectrum how we experience senses are often very different from the average person. Instead of taking a logical path through the nervous system the message goes for a wander and gets all confused. This is what happens in sensory processing disorder; a common attribute that affects many on the autism spectrum but one that is frighteningly often overlooked. The effects can broadly fall into three groupings:
Oversensitive: Too much information reaches the brain.
Try this example out:
Listen to the sounds in the room you’re in now. Can you hear traffic outside? Perhaps there is a clock ticking? There might be people talking or a radio on nearby. Listen closely, can you hear the computer fan humming or the light buzzing?
Chances are you could identify each new sound and focus on it separately? With an oversensitive neuro-connection all of these sounds would come at once in a big wall of noise, your poor brain just doesn’t stand a chance at making any meaningful distinctions here thereby rendering communication impossible.
Undersensitive: Too little information reaches the brain.
Try this example out:
Rest your hands down in front of you. What can you feel? Perhaps it’s a wooden desk or the soft fabric of your trousers? Is it warm or cold? What is it’s texture light, maybe it’s smooth or rough?
Can you now describe what you just felt? Now try this wearing gloves. How many much of this would be different. You would probably miss most of the textures. With an under sensitive connection the messages sent to your brain get filtered out and lost.
Confused Senses: The information sakes a somewhat ‘alternative’ route through the brain.
Sometimes instead of taking the direct path the signal takes a detour and gives the brain a rather different message. This is called synesthesia. One sense gets mixed up with another. The results can be random. With synesthesia might be able to ‘taste’ colours or ‘see’ sound. Perhaps we should be asking if the dress 'tastes' of strawberry or lemon, instead of the colours! The benefits of this can be huge – think of the music abilities if you can see each note! For me it’s less than helpful, – certain textures and visuals make me feel very nauseous. I’m not telling you which, too many of my friends would use this for practical jokes on me!
To what degree and which senses are affected vary drastically in each person and is dictated by a roll of the genetic dice. My sensory difficulties are something I’ve long been aware of but not something I thought could be improved. I was offered a chance to undergo sensory integration therapy and I snapped up the opportunity.
Sensory Integration Therapy doesn’t aim to ‘cure’ the imbalances in the senses, rather it aims to regulate and moderate the more distressing aspects. When the brain gets over or under saturated by messages it can just switch it’s self off in a meldown or shutdown which is something best to be avoided. In a previous post I wrote about my experiences of meltdown, check it at this link.
The sensory integration sessions start by working through many varied tests to establish which senses are affected in what way. This allows a targeted therapy plan to be put in place. After all if you have an oversensitive sense of touch it needs desensitising and vice versa!
The therapy itself is a scattering of different techniques and tools to balance the senses. It’s caused much amusement for my colleagues at work after each session as I return to the office armed with various weird and wacky new gadgets to try out.
The biggest surprise to me what how much two surprising senses were affecting me: Vestibular (balance & coordination) and Proprioception (position in space). I’ve always known that these were under sensitive for me. I can fall over a flat surface and can’t catch a ball to save my life. What I didn’t realise was how pivotal these were for keeping everything else in check.
Now, bear with me on this one, let’s think about an iPhone. There are plenty of apps and you use them they drain battery power and you need to recharge the phone. If the battery runs out the phone turns off. Simple. Some apps use vastly more battery than others so as the battery gets low we moderate our usage. With low battery I probably won’t use music or video apps or take photos etc. Now lets think of the iPhone as our brain and the apps are our senses. It is the Proprioception and vestibular senses that are the most draining on our batteries, and as we get low on power so the others start to fall away faster and faster until we just ‘turn off’
I’m sorry if that analogy was a bit obscure, but it is one that helped me to understand the situation. In summary our brain spends more time and effort keeping the Vestibular and Proprioception in check than it does with the other senses, so when it’s getting tired (or in my case, having an uphill struggle as I’m under sensitive in those areas) it’s other things like sound, taste, smell etc that start to close down first as my brain looks for ways to free up resources. Biologically this kind of makes sense. As a cave man faced with danger knowing my body position and maintaining balance would be essential in the fight or flight scenario. For me today and now it gives a clue as to the way forward. Train my brain to use up less effort managing these senses and the others will all fall in line as being easier to deal with.
In coming posts I’ll be discussing more about how my new experiences in the world of Sensory Integration and letting you know hoe I’ve been getting on. I’ll also write a post to review some of the equipment I’ve been trailing. Do you have any equipment or techniques you’d like to be added to the review? If so then please let me know.
This was a subject that I am only just beginning to learn about and I hope you’ve kept with me until this point! If not, then you’re not actually reading this apology, but sorry for loosing you anyway! So assuming you’re still here reading this than thank you and I do hope you found this post of interest. Please feel free to share this post and get in touch with your thoughts and experiences.