“Why do I seek out adventure? It’s counter-intuitive for a supremely-sensitive autistic to travel the world. Does it hurt? Absolutely, yet seeing distant lands and experiencing new cultures stimulates my interests and expands my perspective. And then there is the joy of photography. Since I think in pictures, these images are my greatest tool for expression and my greatest hope for connection.”
– KJ Swan, Aspie Trekker
I grew up mostly in Southern California with a family who knew I was odd but thought it was a choice. At 17, I began life independent of any familial assistance. I drifted from town to town and job to job, occasionally homeless and often looking for employment. Most of my adult life I’ve slept on a little camping air-mattress, cooked on a hotplate, and lived in garages and basements. I’ve held several professional positions including Microbiology Lab Technician, Circus Acrobat, Art Gallery Director, Bookkeeper, Botanical Archivist, Nanny, Dental Prostheses Fabricator, Librarian, Park Ranger, Landscape Designer, Martial Art Instructor, Physical Therapy Aid, Estate Manager, Special Education Tutor, and Zookeeper.
After I was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (as an adult) my sensory sensitivity, and other challenges, finally began to make sense. Ironically, with that understanding I really took off and traveled further abroad than ever before. I love trekking but struggle with the sensory challenges inherent to transportation and unfamiliar environments. Through the internet, I discovered groups of folks who had similar interests with sensory sensitivity. This gave me the idea of sharing what I’ve learned.
I consider myself supremely sensitive but what does that mean? Just how sensitive am I?
Short answer: very.
Long answer: Tactically Sensitive: As I sit here typing, I’m aware of my blood circulating: I can easily feel the movement through the vessels close to my skin. I hear the rush of rhythmic pulses inside my ears. I am aware of the weight and texture of fabrics I wear. I feel the pressure of my body as it rests on the chair and floor. I feel temperature variations inside my body and immediate environment. I’m so tactically sensitive and selective that I have to chose fabrics and furnishings carefully. Well, actually everything has to pass the “feel” test. Simply put, the softer the better and please, no seams.
Olfactory (Scent) Sensitive: I pick up scents quite well but often would rather not. Think about it – do you really want to smell the breath and sweat of a jogger as he passes? Or the garbage in the next room? I’m sensitive enough to pick up the scent of ketones when a diabetic is in need of insulin. I also find it pretty easy to identify food ingredients and get almost as much joy smelling foods as I do eating them.
Sound Sensitive: I hear as well as most people but my brain processes sound in a way that amplifies the experience. Typical of autism, I cannot selectively filter or ignore the sounds around me. For example, in a typical restaurant there are people chatting/sneezing/coughing/laughing/slurping/chewing/snorting/etc, while some are also shuffling/walking/stomping and clomping along. There’s the sound of ice in drinking glasses, silverware striking teeth/plates/glasses/tables, plus dragged and/or creaking chairs, then add rustling fabrics, liquid pouring, a/c motors or heater fans, music, electronic chimes/beeps/tones/phones, and outside there’s traffic/sirens/motorcycles/trucks/horns. Along with processing all those sounds, I’m aware of the scent of different foods and beverages along with people/laundry detergents/perfumes/colognes/pets (pet-people often smell like their pets) plus all of the various textures, flavors and sights that I directly experience too, which my brain attempts to process all simultaneously while trying to have a conversation with a companion or wait staff. Aaaaah!
For me, most sounds above soft speech hurt. I prefer listening to nature verses music. My favorite is soft raindrops landing on leaves. In contrast, the V-twin engine of a Harley Davidson motorcycle pulses in powerful compressions or syncopated sound. When those compressed sound waves reach me, I crumble to the ground as my entire nervous system screams. Hearing motorcycles, generators, compressors, diesel trucks, chainsaws, etc. can incapacitate me depending on their volume and proximity. Of all my sensory sensitivities, this mystifies the vast majority of people I meet the most – they seem completely unable to relate but it is my “normal.”
Visual Sensitivity: Although I wear sunglasses outdoors, my vision rarely causes me discomfort. In fact I see so many hues, it’s rather entertaining. And when I close my eyes, I see colorful geometric shapes and swirling patterns that I can easily influence. I think in pictures. In my mind, I see file cabinets filled with images I’ve collected since early childhood. I rummage through those mental files to find the image, and related information, that I wish to recall. Like many autistics, I also notice many details and flow-patterns commonly missed by others.
By now you’ve guessed that I’m not exactly the life of the party. And you’re right. There are plenty of places I skip or leave because they are overwhelming. But my experience of the world is also multi-layered and rich with subtleties most will never know. It’s what makes my reality so amazing.