Those on the autism spectrum experience the sensory world very differently to others. Melissa Bovis, Doctor of Nanomedicine, teamed up with autistic artist Jon Adams to explore the causes of these sensory differences in autistic people.
Melissa works in the Centre for Research in Autism and Education (CRAE) at UCL Institute of Education. She works to share evidence-based autism research by engaging different community groups to raise awareness and acceptance of autism.
Jon is a freelance autistic artist, who explores sense and sensitivity through the ‘hidden’, and plays with perceptions of the normal and the inaccessible. Jon also has dyslexia and synaesthesia (crossing of the senses) and works with multiple art forms, including drawing, painting, sculpture, conceptual art, music, poetry and performance.
Have you ever wondered why some of us love the taste of marmite but others hate it? Each one of us shows differences in sensory preferences in touch, taste, sound, smell and sight — it’s what makes us unique. But what if you were extra sensitive to everyday sensations — bright lights and loud noises — to the point where they became unbearable or overwhelming? Or you didn’t experience sensations as intensely as others, such as not feeling pain as others do? What kind of impact would this have on your life and the way you experience the world?
This is often the case for children, young people, and adults on the autism spectrum, for whom sensory sensitivities can be a source of both pleasure and pain.
Autism is a condition affecting 1% of the population. This equates to roughly 700,000 autistic children, young people and adults in the UK. This means that each one of us is likely to know, or come into contact with, someone who is autistic at some point in our lives.
Autism affects different people in different ways, and this is why autism is often referred to as a spectrum condition. Indeed, British psychiatrist and pioneer in autism research, Lorna Wing commented, ‘if you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.’
Whilst the social features of autism (e.g., difficulties in social interaction and communication) are well known, relatively little attention is given to the non-social features of autism, such as experiencing the sensory world differently.
So how do autistic people experience the sensory world? Many autistic individuals are either more or less sensitive to certain, everyday sensory information than others. In some cases, this over or under sensitivity can be enjoyable or pleasurable, but in others, it can be deeply uncomfortable or distressing, causing anxiety and pain.
In addition to autism and dyslexia, Jon also has synesthesia - a condition whereby people experience a crossing of the senses, in which sensory inputs become mixed. For example, seeing sounds in colour when listening to a piece of music or, as Jon states, tasting mould when he sees the colour yellow. It is estimated to affect around 4% of the general UK population and has been shown to be more than twice as common in studies with autistic adults (7% in non-autistic adults versus 19% in autistic adults). This makes for very unique sensory experiences.
Jon, for example, says: “I touch time or space, feel music as shape/direction, and taste colour. This actually stops me physically painting, as yellow tastes of mould.” He also has an impression that “an empty chair is often more alive than the person who sits in it.”
These differences in the way autistic people perceive and experience the world have been noted since the earliest descriptions of autism in the 1940s. Yet, we still know very little about the nature of these sensory differences – how common are they? How we can support the sensory needs of autistic people? Why do they occur in the first place?
Research from CRAE has begun to explore what might be the cause of sensory differences in autism. Typically, when we process information, we make sense of it through the use of our prior knowledge, accrued through past experience. However, studies have shown that autistic children rely more heavily on what they sense in the ‘here and now’. In other words, they seem to process all of the dynamic information they are currently experiencing in the environment around them, rather than using their prior knowledge and experience to work out what information to filter out. This may explain why autistic people experience the world differently: without prior knowledge to help interpret, filter, shape, and make sense of incoming information, they could be more easily affected by sensory sensitivity or sensory overload, because everyday experiences will feel novel and surprising. This may go some way to explain ‘sensory seeking’ in autism, whereby autistic people actively seek out particular sensory experiences that they find pleasurable.
It is important to highlight that the different ways in which autistic people experience the world are not always negative, and can result in the acquisition of unique strengths and abilities. For example, there is evidence to suggest that a greater number of autistic individuals have perfect pitch (the ability to accurately identify music notes in isolation) and a greater capacity to take in more visual and audio information in relation to to non-autistic people at any one time. For example, when shown a film, autistic individuals have been shown more likely to spot its continuity errors than their non-autistic counterparts.
CRAE’s mission is to raise awareness and acceptance of autism, and to carry out world-leading autism research that has a positive impact on the day-to-day lives of autistic people. To this end, CRAE run public engagement workshops designed to demonstrate how everyone’s brain is different and that these differences are not necessarily a bad thing. At these workshops, attendees use different craft materials to decorate ‘SENSEsational’ umbrellas that reflect their sensory preferences. No two umbrellas ever look the same, which is a very visually powerful message to emphasise how each of us and our brains — whether autistic or non-autistic — are different in their own unique way and this should be celebrated.
Speaking about his experience of the world as an autistic person, Jon Adams once said: “I viewed the world with a different lens, a differing perspective” and that this “‘creatively divergent way of thinking” is what enables him as an autistic artist. Integral to who he is, Jon’s unique outlook on the world is invaluable, allowing him to share a fresh take on everyday life through what he creates. The ethos of this ‘umbrella’ project is to give a visual voice to all creators, each with their own specific lens, each with their own differing perspective, to foster understanding and acceptance. The umbrellas we stand under may look and even feel different, but they shelter us from the same rain.