Sensory walkabout

The Person Inside

I have a rather curious relationship with my environment. You see, my particular brand of autism is accompanied by sensory dysregulation, which means that I often experience my environment in a different and quite extraordinary way.

A walk through Sproul Plaza is a testament to this unusual relationship. For many, Sproul Plaza is usually a fun and lively place to walk about.

Booths line either side of the Sproul walkway, promoting the various clubs and activities on campus. Musical groups on the steps of Sproul Hall, outside The Golden Bear café and under Sather Gate entertain passersby. A food delivery Kiwibot meanders through the crowd on a mission to feed a hungry student. Students protest near Sather Gate to make their voices heard. Vibrant energy rolls off the 200 or so chattering students milling around.

But my unregulated sensory system has a different take. I can hear conversations and music from near and far, except they are all at the same volume. I try, unsuccessfully, to filter through this deafening noise and focus on the music nearby. It’s like walking into a party and hearing all the conversations at once and being unable to focus on just one.

My senses cross over where my eyes can smell and feel, not just see. My eyes can feel the texture of the blue canvas that cover the booths. The white text on the blue canvas feels abrasive on the cool blue, and the canvas moves like a sine curve in the wind.

A student walks quickly by me, carrying a small blackboard easel. The words “Know your …” are chalked on the board. I want to read but the rest is lost as she scurries right past.

The Kiwibot looks like a little dog — I want to touch it; I feel compelled to pet it. I reach down, but it just continues on. When I go behind it, it stops and simply stands there. I have a fleeting thought — did I just break the bot?

All these observations — and more — have happened in the space of less than a minute. Hundreds of minutiae flash through my senses.

I actually love the energy of Sproul Plaza. But my body is reeling and overwhelmed from trying to process it all. This kind of sensory bombardment is both exhausting and exciting for individuals like me, whose systems often struggle to cope with it.

For most people, the reliance on your sensory system for daily functioning is so automatic that you don’t even think about it. But most people have an inbuilt coping mechanism by way of filters. It requires some effort, but most of you are able to filter out noise and distractions so that you can focus on only what you want to see, hear or do.

But for people like me, these filters are less than efficient. Even the autism meltdown can be the result of sensory overload.

A sensorily disorganized body like mine comes up with its own set of coping mechanisms to drown out the sensory overload. These mannerisms are called “stims,” or “self-stimulatory behaviors” in autism. Flicking your fingers helps filter incoming lightwaves. Verbal noises can be an attempt to drown out external sound.

But stims that start off as a coping mechanism can also become habits that are hard to kick and look potentially inappropriate as we grow older.

What other students see is an individual who is constantly fidgeting, with an awkward gait and a bunch of offbeat mannerisms. I am aware of standing out, which adds to my anxiety and makes me appear to stim more.

The skin is the largest sensory organ in the body, so there is sensory input coming in literally from head to toe. It is both agony and ecstasy.

On the flip side, people like me pick up so many more cues compared to our typical peers, which makes our powers of observation that much more astute. The outward body may not exhibit it, but our minds are thinking, observing and inferring constantly.

Our atypical sensory system actually works to our advantage in the field of academics, especially in critical thinking and analytical skills. We have a lot to contribute to society since  thinking out of the box is really second nature to us.

We notice things at the gross and subtle levels, even changes in energy levels. When we truly love something and are happy, we enjoy it at a different sensory level — to the point of bliss, at times. The rhythm of a waterfall can, for instance, touch the very soul. It is a heady sensation.

Even as I try to cope with a body that is often at odds with the environment, I also experience my environment in a most amazing and extraordinary way.


Hari Srinivasan writes the Thursday column on his experience as a nonverbal autistic student. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @HariSri108.