Sensory Stuff

Our Autistic Expression

How did a Transformers movie help me to understand that I am neurodivergent, and put to rest an oft-voiced complaint about me in social settings? Read on to learn this, and other aspects of our sensory experience, in the latest edition of the ongoing series Our Autistic Expression.

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Because of our late diagnoses, and our tendency to ask innumerable questions about ourselves and about the world, once we both understood that we might be neurodivergent, we sought out indices of our own behaviors (and experiences, tendencies, thoughts, etc) for comparison. As anyone in a similar position will understand, we are endlessly self-aware and search for causal chains for logical explanations. We sought the wisdom of anecdotal experience, alongside reading mountains of evidence-based clinical research and white papers on neurodivergence & autistic expression.

Sensory processing is of great focus in both personal and scientific research. I had never considered my own sensory processing as unusual or atypical, and what I read forced me to think much more deeply.

A dawning moment that I was assuredly on the spectrum was sensory in nature, a realization as epic as the intent of the Michael Bay movie on which it centered. That a Transformers movie should be the catalyst for my self-awareness is both fitting and humorous.

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Like many, I often went to the movies, prior to the streaming age. I always enjoyed the experience but could hardly remember what I’d seen afterward. I couldn’t recall plot details or character names. I had always attributed this to my mind fixating on details it found more pressing – the choices the set designer made, how the composer created suspense, etc.

Despite my inability to nap (lifelong inability, you can ask my mom) and my inability to fall asleep in public, or sleep sitting up, during the biggest action movies, I always fell asleep. No matter how much I’d looked forward to seeing the movie, no matter how important it was to me that I remain awake, 30 to 45 minutes in I was dozing. I never made the conscious decision to close my eyes, never felt bored, tired, or disinterested, and yet, again and again, inexplicably, I was told by those accompanying me, “You passed out,” “You fell asleep,” “You were out like a light,” etc.

And just as inexplicably, I’d awaken during the credits. Star Wars episode 4 is my first recollection of this happening, but many people found that movie boring (sorry fans), so it didn’t surprise me. It happened again during action-adventure movies, most notably during one of the Transformers movies. (I really don’t know which one.)

I was sitting in the theater, excited and impressed by the intense special effects, digital art having come so far in such a short time. It was a magnificent take on the toys I coveted from the boys’ toy aisle as a child in the early 90s.

No less than 10 minutes into the movie, I was having trouble keeping my eyes open, despite the double espresso I’d had an hour before. I fought the sleepiness as long as I could. My body rattled and my skin buzzed from the voluminous surround sound, literally shaking and thumping along with every footstep and every collision. My body pulsed chaotically, deep in my muscles, entirely out of my control. My eyes grew heavier as the bright, colorful, highly pixelated action sequences penetrated my retinae. The last thing I remember before “falling asleep” was the sensation that my heart was going to race itself right out of my rib cage.

At the roll of the credits, my eyes popped open and I was awake. My skin no longer trembled. My muscles twinged, like I’d run a mile without stretching first, but otherwise I felt nothing but shame. The person I was with, someone I was dating at the time, was furious with me afterward. He’d spent money on these tickets, after all, and the least I could have done was tell him I wasn’t interested in seeing it. I had no way of explaining – I was interested!

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With the understanding that I might be neurodivergent, a decade later, this was the first experience that came to mind. I hadn’t been falling asleep out of boredom or exhaustion. And I wasn’t “waking up” at the credits because I sensed people moving around or heard the end roll in my sleep.

I was blacking out from something the community refers to as sensory overload.

The intensity of movies with rising action, incredibly loud sounds, and flashing, colorful images were literally overloading my body’s ability to keep track of all of the sensations it was experiencing. My body was overwhelmed with the inability to turn down or tune out the noise, so to speak. Consciousness requires a lot of neurological resources, and my body’s tendency in these rare and extreme situations was to conserve resources, by shutting down awareness and running on autopilot.

I was waking up at the credit roll because I was never really asleep. I was experiencing the entire movie without consciously having to process all of my sensations. The moment the sensory experience dulled, the light switch flipped, and I was ‘awake’ again, consciousness returned to me.

Likely, my inability to remember any movie is a facet of this as well. Storing anything in short-term memory takes resources too. I like the analogy of a computer’s RAM, or Random Access Memory. If all of my processing power is being used to touch base with my skin, muscles, sights, sounds, etc., then likely the resources (or RAM) available to also catalog memories during these moments is slim.

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I have no proof of this other than that of my own experiences. I don’t know if there would be a safe way to prove it. Now I just avoid Michael Bay movies and most of the trouble in this particular regard has subsided.

My desire to KNOW was strong and had been powerful in the past. Did my awareness of the issue remove the sensitivity? I wished to go willingly into the belly of the beast once more, having gained this knowledge, trying desperately to know myself.

I chose a 4D action movie, which purported to be a sequel to one of my favorite movies, starring Tom Cruise. (It was not a sequel.) In the 4D theater, the seats move to replicate the character’s experience on scene. If a character falls, the chair bumps. If a character leans over a railing, the chair tilts forward. Scents and sprays are directed at the audience to enliven the experience further. I figured, it may not be Michael Bay, but if I’m right and this is actually sensory overload, the added scents, smells, and movement should make up for the loud (if not abnormally loud) sounds and vivid (if not entirely digitally wonderous) imagery.

The moment before I blacked out, my back was crawling with sensation as rats devoured Tom Cruise in a London alley.

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It isn’t just movies. Concerts are a special sort of shock as well. When I feel the bass in my chest and see the lights strobing, there’s a chance I’m a goner. I remember the first half of an AC/DC concert I attended, and then my date forcibly shaking me and lecturing me all the way out to the parking lot about the stupidity of over-imbibing. (I’d had 3 beers, not a drunken black-out’s worth, but seeing me black out, he’d assumed many more.)

Sensory overload is truly a difficult thing to understand if you haven’t experienced it for yourself. It isn’t a headache under a bright light or the grating shudder when hearing nails on the chalk board. It is the overwhelm of sensory input combined with the inability to process all of the data coming through.  And it is exhausting.

In my daily life, I don’t experience sensory overload very often, and I have since learned how to manage my environment in order to cope.

  • I avoid movie theaters generally, and the rise of big screen TV has made movies much more pleasant. When I sense a movie is “too much” (eg a horror movie with a lot of blood and suspense), I sit sideways and casually watch the movie askance.
  • My office and bedroom offer a variety of lighting options, to stimulate or relax sensations, but in general I prefer yellow light to bright white light.
  • I prefer dark paint to light paint, especially in relaxation settings.
  • I’m discerning about the clothing I wear, textures in particular, so that I’m not adding to my sensory load by feeling an itchy synthetic draw on my neck or hips. More about my fashion-related autistic expression here.
  • I sleep with a mask to darken the room, cover digital lights with black tape, and have replaced a noisy air conditioner for one with a quieter motor.
  • I keep gentle, pleasant smelling essential oil or lotion with me at all times, in case an outside smell is nauseating.
  • After a long day, I sit in the dark to recover, with no screens and no sounds, just something to hold my focus, like a sketchbook.
  • I take frequent walks in nature, which only ever relaxes me.
  • I avoid the beach and its vastness.
  • I seek out hugs or personal space when the needs arise.

There are rare times when I need to turn the lights up, the sound on, and create an environment rife with multiple inputs. I’m not entirely sensorially wimpy, so to speak.

The Scientist can never get enough sensory input. Curiously, like me, he really enjoys nature but for different reasons. Pathways among the trees provide an endless amount of visually stimulating textures, colors, and random variations; the outdoors wrap his other senses pleasantly as well. His ideal day is spent on death-defying rollercoasters in the sun with loud music blaring. After a long day, he needs an unfathomable (to me) amount (say, all the lights on, loud anime, a handheld video game, a heating pad, & a fizzy drink). As partners, this makes our living situation interesting, and at times, challenging.

As always, with verbal cues and self-awareness, we do our best to make it work and keep it working.

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About the Series

I am neurodivergent. Neurodivergent is more appropriate terminology than autistic, a term which derives from the Greek word autos meaning self, a term intended to imply isolation from social interaction. While the definition of autism has expanded over time, I feel it’s more flawed and divisive than not (as labels typically are). While I do still refer to myself as autistic on occasion, I’m much more likely to label my notable traits as autistic, as in “this skill or tendency sets me apart”, and to describe myself generally as divergent.

My partner, also neurodivergent, feels similarly. We were both diagnosed later in life, in our mid-late 20s, after running the gauntlet of other health and human service concerns and crossing the eventual “must be autism if it isn’t these other things” finish line. I wouldn’t wish either of our journeys toward diagnosis for anyone, years rife with stress, mislabeling, depression, psychosis, serious medical ailments, and general social othering. The medical and psychiatric communities have already begun to recognize neurodivergence earlier, and with more sincere gender blindness, to provide individuals with the tools, resources, and assistance they require. To “make it” in our society as a person who falls many standard deviations outside the expected average on related scales relies on an individualized approach to education and healthcare. (A much larger conversation for another day.)

Sincerely,

Sunshine

Of Www.sunshineandthescientist.com

Creator of Kid Lit Motivates: a fledgling business on Long Island providing customized educational resources from a unique perspective of education

Author of Maddie Steiner, Fashion Designer

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