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Autism Consulting Service
The Sensory System
The human brain receives all of the information that we know about the world and each other through our sensory system. There is no other way for this information to be gathered. People on the autism spectrum describe their experience in this world as that of being overwhelmed by the sensory stimulation they receive from the environments they are forced to deal with. Touch is like a tidal wave, sounds are too loud, language distorted, vision fragmented, focusing on each piece separately rather than the whole, odors often sickening and tastes unbearable. These descriptions have now been validated through research on the specific construction of the brain. Researchers at the University of Georgia (Casanova et. al ) have discovered that people on the autism spectrum have more mini columns in their brains and that these mini columns are smaller than those of a typical human being. The direct result of this difference is that information through the sensory system is received at a heightened level, overwhelming the system.
It is important to realize that there is a huge difference between a system that is overwhelmed by the amount of information it receives and a system that is "dysfunctional". The sensory systems of those on the autism spectrum are NOT dysfunctional but are actually working at a higher level than those of the rest of us. They respond like the systems we attribute to fictional super heroes such as superman. The problem is that we do not realize how this level of response affects the human body. Superman would react like those on the spectrum if he was a real person.
Understanding that their sensory systems work at a higher level than ours does means that we must be very careful of any treatment modality that we use for those on the autism spectrum. The higher response to incoming stimulation means that the body is constantly having to deal with too much information which increases the level of stress on the body, which turn reacts with higher levels of anxiety. The symptoms of autism are actually the direct result of heightened levels of anxiety. Any treatment program that does not understand and respect this factor is in turn raising the level of anxiety, thus causing more distress to the body of the person with autism.
When a body reaches a danger level of input it will automatically go into shut down. Shutdown feels like a very safe place as there is no longer any response to sensory input of any kind. However, it is also a very dangerous place as the body is also no longer registering any messages from itself such as hunger, thirst, pain, or the need to go to the bathroom. Many of the myths that have surrounded autism for years such as the lack of response to pain are actually descriptions of shut down. Many of the treatments that have been developed for use in the field of autism actually are based directly on pushing a person into shutdown. This is extremely dangerous as it leads to another major problem in time: constipation. If you don't feel the need to go to the bathroom, you don't go, which in time leads to problems with the bowel system. If you don't feel hunger or thirst you may go for days without food or drink and put yourself into a serious situation. If you don't feel pain when you have injured yourself, you can do much damage to your body by using something that has been injured. We must be willing to make the effort to understand and respect shutdown if we are going to keep people with autism safe.