Understanding autism: sensory differences

Before spring break, there was a picture that made the rounds on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Reddit. The picture was of a simple dress, which viewers saw as either black and blue or white and gold. Those with different opinions on the dress’s color argued vehemently, trying to find a reason for this baffling phenomenon.

Eventually some scientists did come out with an explanation for the discrepancy: with the color of the background the way it was, our eyes naturally removed one of the colors. As neuroscientist Bevil Conway said in an article in Wired, “You’re trying to discount the chromatic bias of the daylight axis.” But another interesting tidbit came out: people’s senses are very different when it comes to relaying information.

This is especially true for those with autism. Many people with autism have sensory differences. They see, feel and hear things in very different ways than everyone else. These sensory differences can be manifested in various ways, such as extraordinary vision and sensitivity to touch.

Even from a young age, those diagnosed with autism are able to perform significantly better in sight-based tests than those with no diagnosis. Some people with autism have vision that is, at times, on par with that of eagles. Notable autism advocate Temple Grandin said that sometimes she is able to see perfectly fine while driving at night without her headlights, relying solely on her sense of sight.

These sensory differences can have a profound negative impact also. Noises can be amplified, causing pain and discomfort. A trip to the grocery store could become a horrible experience. The clashing of the carts, the clicking of the cash registers and the buzz of the fluorescent lights can add up to a cacophony of horrible sounds that lead to an upsetting experience for those with sensory differences, even though they would normally go unnoticed by most.
Others might have an aversion to touch. A slight touch on the shoulder, clothes that are not made out of a certain material — these things can hurt them in a way that those who don’t perceive differently cannot possibly understand.

James Neyer is a junior Honors Bachelor of Arts major from Cincinnati.
James Neyer is a junior Honors Bachelor of Arts major from Cincinnati.

These sensory differences can turn new experiences into a world of pain for those with autism, and it is different for each person. Not every person with autism shares the same differences in their senses. They react differently to outward stimuli and require extra thought and care to help them remain at peace.

One thing that is often overlooked is how these sensory differences can make it difficult for people with autism to relate to other people. Picture the dress. Some saw it as black and blue, others as white and gold. If people saw it as black and blue, they generally could not understand how others could see it differently. Imagine if this were the case for everything you touched, tasted, saw, smelled or felt. You would not be able to understand how other people could stand that incessant buzzing of the lights, painful to you but nothing to them.
In order to understand these differences and close the gap, try this: whenever someone has a different opinion or belief, hear it as “this dress is white and gold.” Realize that they are not wrong about what they think; their senses are merely interpreting the same object differently.