This week is World Autism Week and we hope this blog is a useful resource to help people better understand what it means to be an autistic person with sensory processing difficulties.

Sensory Street logo of a white line drawing of a person from the shoulders up showing the brain. Blue background.

What does it mean to be an autistic person with sensory processing difficulties? How do sensory aspects of the environment impact autistic people? How can we help people learn about what sensory processing difficulties are like? These are the questions we are asking at Sensory Street, a research project at the University of Oxford. Our Wellcome Trust funded project aims to work with the autistic community in creating an immersive event to help people learn more about sensory processing difficulties in a creative and interesting way.

Round graphic showing the 8 senses

What are sensory processing difficulties?

We process sensory information all the time to help us understand the world around us. There are seven different sensory systems which are:

  • Hearing
  • Taste
  • Touch
  • Sight
  • Smell
  • Proprioception (a sense of where our body is in space and how different parts are moving)
  • Vestibular (our sense of balance and movement)

Some people also consider interoception to be our eighth sense. This is about internal feelings created by the body such as messages about how fast your heart is beating or if you need the toilet.

Many autistic people have difficulties processing this information and it can make it harder to complete everyday tasks. People may be hyper-sensitive to certain stimuli (e.g. the smell of coffee) or less aware of these than others. Each sense may be affected in different ways to different levels, and it can vary depending on the context.

Someone who knows first-hand what daily life is like with sensory processing issues is Emily, a member of our project team. She has Sensory Processing Disorder and is Autistic.

Emily explains:

Sensory processing issues are a constant thing for me – my senses are ridiculously heightened at all times and totally out of my control. My mood can change so quickly if I become overwhelmed by something (e.g. loud noises, bright lights, strong scents, unexpected touch) as I cannot filter the information coming into my brain, and I cannot regulate my emotions or understand and label my own feelings. This means day-to-day it can be quite tiring being out in the world, and as a result, I’ve become very good at masking (hiding my true thoughts/feelings), and I can only really drop that mask when I am in a safe environment like my home. Both personally, and as a team, I think we feel that it’s very important to create awareness of sensory processing difficulties as they are a key part of what makes the world quite a disabling and uninviting place for autistic people.

Sensory processing differences are part of what can make the world disabling for autistic people. Support often focuses on interventions for an individual rather than the interaction between them and their environment. We want to inform people about sensory processing disorders to encourage businesses to think about how their spaces could be changed to support all people who use them.  

 

What is next for Sensory Street?

We are particularly interested in learning more about what sensory aspects of different environments (e.g., shops, restaurants and hairdressers) most affect autistic people.

Over the next few months, we are planning to speak to a range of autistic people about their sensory experiences. This will be through a series of focus groups as well as asking people to comment on posts through our social media pages (@sensory_street). We are also planning on working with autistic children, including those who do not use words. Once we have collected all the results, we will analyse the responses and use this to help us create our immersive event in 2022.

 

How can I learn more?

Follow us at @sensory_street on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook to learn more about the project and to hear about how you can get involved.

If you would like to learn more about SPD you can also find out more from some of our partners:

https://21andsensory.wordpress.com/ (@21andsensory)

https://www.sensoryspectacle.co.uk/  (@sensoryspectacle)