Sensory Sensitivity

The standards to which we create things are based on the average wants and comfort levels of people. The biggest group is called “typical”, and since perception is about how your brain perceives things, we refer to their neurology as neurologically typical; shortened to neurotypical. Importantly, all people have a limit to what sensory they can process before their functional capacity declines.

Average is nice, but tends to exclude a good number of people.

For example, the loudest that electrical equipment can be is based on the average loudest dB that doesn’t cause pain or damage – which means that it does cause pain and damage for some. Additionally, domestic (home) equipment doesn’t sell well when it is too loud or sounds too obnoxious to people – you’d rather buy the brand that sounds less bad.

At some point in manufacturing, industries get lazy. For example, most vacuum cleaners sound about the same – that is, they are about the same loudness, and about the same pitch. It is the natural meeting point of “legal”, “sells well” and “cheap”. If you want to purchase a vacuum cleaner, and you aren’t very rich, you will settle on the least objectionable item – and they are all basically the same.

It is not uncommon for an autistic person to be more sensitive to some types of loud sounds and some types of pitches than neurotypical people. This sensitivity can be felt as physical pain, or mood pain such as anger, sadness or anxiety. Do you hear the electronic devices screaming in a super high pitch? Perhaps you hear the deep hum of the refrigerator and it irritates you. 

Too much sensory input

Not all autistic people will struggle with loud sounds, or with certain pitches. 

I’ve picked on audio as a place to start from. All of our senses have these issues, whether you are neurotypical or neurodivergent. There is a limit to how much or how little a phenomenon can be for any person to perceive. If you detect beyond the average range (eg very high sound, or very low sound) then you are hypersensitive; if you detect below the average range (eg can’t taste that food where others can) you are hyposensitive. You may note the phenomena, love the phenomena (philic response), or hate/fear the phenomena (phobic response).

I want to emphasise that being hyper or hypo sensitive isn’t necessarily a good or bad thing. Each are useful and hindering in the right context. I was supporting an autistic person to purchase a phone. They wanted to feel the texture of the phone before purchasing it, to minimise a sensory rejection of the item. When the sales assistant returned the phone to its cradle, they accidentally set off the burglar alarm. This was very, very loud and warbled at a particular pitch that was quite unpleasant. The store was emptied within seconds. The sales assistant was shaking as they tried very hard to focus enough to return the phone to the cradle properly and deactivate the alarm – the alarm was making it very hard for them to think. The autistic person I was supporting just stood there and waited, seemingly unperturbed by the sound. I checked to see if they were ok, and they responded that while the noise wasn’t fun, they were perfectly fine. We then held a conversation for a few minutes while waiting for the sales assistant to finally deactivate the noise, which confirmed that my person was not flustered or discombobulated. While the hyposensitivity to this particular noise wasn’t useful in this instance (beyond not having to run out of the store like all of the others), I can imagine a setting where it would be. This could have also gone the other way, where if my person was hypersensitive to that sound combination, I may have had a sobbing or aggressive person on my hands.

There is an excellent argument that if we, as a society, made some additional considerations of sensory sensitivities, then everyone would benefit. Imagine, being able to purchase a cheap and effective vacuum cleaner that was half as loud and less obnoxiously pitched. Imagine each room in the office building having their own climate control, so that the person in the room can pick the temperature that works best for them.

In my opinion, everyone would gain from society requiring more consideration to sensory limits, not just autistic people.