The Mind and the Mortar (sensory issues and the autism spectrum)

It’s odd that we change. Years pass, memories of different selves accrue. I think the mind can have a difficult time reconciling those different selves with their varied, contradictory shapes.

I remember having a much stronger sensory awareness when I was a kid. My nose would haunt me, for example. I would smell something unpleasant, and a sense of unease would settle over me for days. I’d grow moody about it, troubled. Sometimes, for reasons I didn’t understand at the time, I would lash out at others well after the triggering scent.

It was a challenge because seemingly every single item had it’s own unique smell…and they all triggered reactions, some positive, some negative. I liked smelling crayons (some of them, anyway); I liked books; I thought carpeting was evil. Any sort of carpeting…new, old, recently cleaned…it was all terrible. And yet today, as an adult, I rarely notice these things…my sense of smell seems to have very slowly faded, to the point that it is no longer a daily struggle to navigate.

Taste was odd back then…hyper-alert to food textures. There was a range of textures I could handle…anything outside of that range would make me sick. I was unable to palate most fruits, for example. I liked the taste, but the textures threw me into nausea. Bananas were the worst. I’d try a banana, spit it out, gag; I’d then roam around for days feeling miserable…the unease would settle deep into my stomach, churning like a sea-sickness.

Other foods were okay…I thought yogurt was miraculous. I liked very smooth mashed potatoes…but if they turned out too thick, I’d grow sick tasting it; I could feel that some texture-threshold had been crossed and my body would revolt.

These food sensitivities changed, though…over the years, my palate expanded out to where it could handle most things. I found, in my 20’s, that I could begin eating fruit for the first time sans nausea.

Touch evolved. As a kid, I wanted to touch everything. I liked raspy walls and paper the most. I liked the covers of old books. I could spend all day touching tree bark, bricks, velcro. Sand paper was so intense that I couldn’t rub it…I would just put my hand on it, leave it there for a bit…that’s all I could handle.

Like everything else, that sense-awareness slowly faded…today, my hands still feel intense, lively, but the things around me…the walls and trees and books…they don’t resonate like they used to.

This is stating the obvious, but senses are not just random impressions; they are bringing us information about the world. And when the world around us changes, it can lead to very strong reactions.

For example, seasonal changes can have a profound impact on the senses. When summer gives way to fall, and the humidity drops: sound moves differently through the air, impacts the ear more sharply. The sun changes position throughout the year, creating different varieties of brightness, which can be disconcerting for someone with light sensitivities. Even simple changes- in temperature or barometric pressure- can create vertiginous reactions internally.

(I mention this because I often wonder what it means to experience less intense sensory impressions; am I also losing some quantity of connection to the world? How could I not be? I also wonder if these changes have happened because I’ve simply acclimated to the sensory impact of life…or if depression re-organized my brain so that I would feel less. I don’t know how to know things like this. I just know how to think about them, ask questions.)

So, senses change. Seasons change. But we change along with them. Our minds can stretch into the world, wear down it’s threads until it has the muted comfort of old clothes.

I’m not saying, “Sensory issues get better over time.” Sometimes they do, in many cases they do not. I know for me, it’s been a mix…a few improved, others didn’t. My tactile awareness has lessened; my aversion to lights hasn’t. I just think that between the mortar of senses and the pestle of life, the mind can’t help but change, even for those on the autism spectrum. Maybe especially for those on the spectrum.

I think the oddest part about the changes we go through in life is the fact that you can still recall previous experiences. You have access to memories of a completely different person.

You have a sense of self, an identity…but as years go by, it’s ground up in that mortar…then you feel normal for a time, settled into a new identity…and then it’s back into the mortar, for more grinding and changing.

And it is truly astonishing that you can go through these endless mutations, yet remain linked through memory to a previous self.

When I think about a collection of memories, my mind tends to feel like a room full of strangers: they’re milling about, looking at one another, trying to figure out who all of these people are…then they reach into their pockets and are surprised to find dozens of photographs…photographs of the very strangers around them; they examine the pictures, try to understand when they were taken, what they mean.

That’s my mind, most days: a room full of memory-people, all lost…all bewildered by this unexplained connection to strangers.

Find more Invisible Strings on Facebook and Twitter. Recent posts: the challenge of sorting through social data; how families can misperceive ASD; and why small talk is confusing.
Share this Article!Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on TumblrShare on Google+