This article, written by Jennifer McIlwee Myers, Aspie At Large, is part of Future Horizons’ Author News Series, where we feature contributions from our authors.
At this point, most people in the autism world know that sensory processing disorder (SPD) goes with autism like peanut butter with jelly: it’s not illegal to have one without the other, but how often does it actually happen? Not very much.
Even though so many people are aware that autism comes with SPD attached, there is one key that many of those same folks miss; if you have trouble communicating and understanding how others around you experience life (which is often the case for those of us who are aspies or auties), you might just have difficulty understanding just how different those “typical” people are.
As a child, I could not understand how other people could fail to smell and hear things that came through to me loud and clear. I would sometimes be able to smell something burning and therefore need to find out what it was (to make sure it was someone’s barbeque grill and not, say, a huge and dangerous fire that was going to kill us all). Adults and kids alike would tell me that I didn’t smell anything and that I was being silly and worrying for nothing.
And that, in a word, sucked. When you smell, feel, taste, or otherwise sense something going on and the people around you tell you that it’s not real, you can wind up feeling nervous, paranoid, and alienated pretty fast. The emotions that come with what amounts to constant gaslighting are not pleasant.
None of the people who did this to me had an interest in hurting or stressing me out. Okay, there was this one teacher . . . but that’s not important here.
What is important is that being told, “You don’t smell anything burning,” was scary because I could clearly sense that there was something burning. If the teacher had said, “Well, there’s no smoke and when I look out the window there’s nothing burning, so it’s probably just someone cooking outdoors,” that might possibly have calmed me down, but more importantly it would have acknowledged my real sensory data instead of brushing it aside.
More and more teachers and parents are becoming aware of SPD and how common it is in people with autism spectrum disorders, and that’s great. What is often missed is the importance of acknowledging the real-life experiences of people who have non-standard sensory processing. It’s a vital piece of the puzzle: when typical (and atypical) people start responding in a way that respects the way real life is experienced by people on the autism spectrum go through, bridges of communication and understanding are built.
If you want someone to be able to express sympathy and understanding, one of the best ways to help them do that is by giving them that self-same sympathy and understanding. Understanding SPD is a great way for adults who work with autistic kids to build meaningful bonds that help these kids connect better to the non-autistic world around them.
For more from Jennifer McIlwee Myers on sensory prossesing disorder and autism, refer to her newest book, Growing Up With Sensory Issues: Insider Tips from A Woman with Autism! Also, follow Jennifer on Facebook for more insight and updates on her autism projects and speaking engagements.