The Sensory Connection
The goal of this ongoing series is to examine the interplay between autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and depression. As mentioned in Part 2, it can be difficult to untangle one from the other since depression can hide behind autistic traits. But there’s another factor involved with ASD that can also allow depression to persist unchecked: sensory issues.
To cover the role of sensory issues in this dynamic, I’ll make 3 points.
I. Sensory issues and depression can create similar states of physical exhaustion.
Be it caused by lights, sounds or something else, sensory overload can be extremely painful. And once the triggering event is over, it can leave a person feeling drained and exhausted. I have an aversion to lights, for example; I know if I’m outside, exposed to the sun for too long, I mentally hit the wall and have to spend a fair amount of time lying down in a dark space. It doesn’t matter that my eyes are the focus of the discomfort…at a certain point, my entire body feels drained and in need of serious down time.
Similarly, one of the most common depressive traits is feeling drained of energy, both mentally and physically. Many describe depression as a “lead blanket” sensation. The triggers for depressive fatigue and sensory fatigue are different, but the overall effect can be the same.
In many ways, this is an obvious point: sensory issues and depression can each lead to exhaustion. But this similarity is what makes the next two points possible.
II. Depression can exacerbate sensory issues.
The pain caused by sensory issues can make it difficult to perform any number of daily living tasks. When a trigger is in effect, like lights or sounds, the amount of time one has before feeling overwhelmed is very limited.
I tend to think of my energy level as a battery: on a good day, I’ll have just enough battery power to make it through certain tasks. But if indoor lights are too bright, or I’m out a lot on a sunny day, that battery will begin to run down much more quickly. I’ll end up feeling overwhelmed and exhausted faster than I would have had the lights not been a factor.
When you add depression into the mix? That energy level depletes even faster. If you’re starting from a place of depressive fatigue, the impact of sensory issues will be felt much sooner and can lead to an even greater feeling of lethargy.
III. Sensory issues can exacerbate depression.
This naturally follows from the previous point. It just gets down to the cumulative effect of exhaustion piling on top of exhaustion. Depression can make it so difficult to build up the energy needed for simple tasks; include sensory triggers and it can become more than a person can handle.
As mentioned in part 3, depression is not just a feeling of sadness, it’s also a complicated network of self-defeating thoughts. The pain and fatigue of sensory overload can definitely add more misery to a depressive state, which can in turn fuel those mechanisms of depressive thinking. I know for me, the more down I feel, the darker my thoughts can turn.
(For this reason, it’s important to avoid inadequate responses to depression: telling someone to “get out more” or to “challenge themselves”…this is overly-simplistic and can backfire if they have sensory issues.)
Proceed with Caution
Sensory issues and depression can both interact and reinforce one another. It’s a dangerous connection, given the ease with which those struggling with depression can entertain suicidal thoughts.
This is why it’s important to 1. identify depression in someone with ASD and 2. identify their sensory triggers. If you can map out these features, it might be easier to proceed with caution and make sure that one set of reactions is not exacerbating the other.