Monday, December 14, 2009

Asperger’s: The Itchy Tag Effect

Most of us familiar with the basic symptoms associated with Asperger Disorder understand that people with Asperger’s often seem hypersensitive. Children with Asperger’s today often readily voice their discomfort with textures, noises and scents they find uncomfortable, and this discomfort has become, if not an accepted diagnostic criteria, a very familiar phenomenon for parents.

In their April, 2009 article Talent in Autism, Simon Baron-Cohen et al. describe sensory hypersensitivity, a form of enhanced perceptual functioning typical of many individuals with autism spectrum conditions (ASC). Indeed, the article states that “studies using questionnaires such as the sensory profile have revealed sensory abnormalities in over 90per cent of children with ASC.” How individuals process information (both cognitive and sensory) may be highly impacted, even organized according to, these differences: and the differences may cause distress, but also predispose to unusual talent.

In my practice, adults with Asperger's frequently report highly sensitive senses of taste, touch, hearing, sight and smell. Sensory oversensitivities often reported by adults with Asperger’s include:

oversensitivity can cause the individual to feel physical sensations such as light touch, itchy fabrics, hugs and bare feet as unbearable.

Visual: oversensitivity can cause the individual to find fluorescent lights, bright sunlight, flashing lights and overly stimulating visual environments (e.g. casinos) to cause great discomfort.

Auditory: oversensitivity can cause the individual to find auditory input to be impossible to ignore. Foreground and background noises can compete with one another, leaving the listener unable to selectively attend. Shrill or high pitched noises, such as those of dental drills, children’s squeals or shrieks, and blenders can cause extreme discomfort. Discordant music can cause discomfort.

oversensitivity can cause the individual to feel uncomfortable with new tastes, or to find them intolerable. Children with gustational oversensitivity can prefer the same foods over and over again, refusing new foods and finding new flavors distressing.

Olfaction: Current research does not support evidence of oversensitivity for the sense of smell.

Clinicians who work with adults with Asperger’s often find that this sensory hyperacuity has been coped with and channeled in creative ways. Following are some of the positive coping mechanisms reported to me by clients who have struggled with sensory oversensitivity without knowing exactly what the problem was.

Clients who struggle with tactile hypersensitivity often:
• Wear soft, heavily washed, loose-fitting clothing, such as t-shirts and baggy shorts
• Avoid body piercings and tattoos
• Find showering unpleasant due to oversensitivity to sensations of water and changes in temperature
• Remove tags from clothing, which can be itchy
• Choose specific brands of clothing, underwear and shoes which provide minimal restriction
• Find ways to gain tactile input which is soothing, such as hair-pulling, hair twirling, hand tapping, etc.
• Enjoy stroking soft materials, such as the fur of cats

Clients who struggle with visual hypersensitivity often:
• Avoid visually overwhelming environments
• Wear sunglasses or hats to minimize bright lights
• Remove lamps or bulbs in work areas to reduce glare
• Cover fluorescent lights
• Close blinds during work time to prevent interruption by visual stimuli such as passers-by
• Keep work areas neatly organized to prevent becoming visually overstimulated
• Find visually predictable environments, such as video games, rewarding and comfortable

Clients with auditory oversensitivity often:
• “Tune out” when conversation becomes too overwhelming to attend to
• Avoid interacting in crowded settings, such as parties, or use substances to mediate oversensitivity
• Rely on electronics, such as iPods, to provide predictable auditory stimulation
• Wear noise-cancelling headphones when concentrating or meditating
• Spend quiet, solitary time to “recover” from overstimulating experiences
• Avoid telephone and cell phone use to minimize unanticipated auditory input
• Hum, sing or make noises to cancel out noises beyond individual’s control
• Listen to music excessively

If you have noticed your own or a loved one’s sensory hypersensitivity, be sure and treat it as condition to take seriously. Some researchers (see Belmonte et al., 2004) hypothesize that this sensory “magnification” may result from neural overconnectivity in sensory parts of the cerebral cortex. While research on brain structure and development differences is still being conducted, sensory oversensitivity in adults with ASC is well documented, and is most likely physiologically based.

Implementing some simple interventions can help the individual with Asperger’s feel much more comfortable in the world. An increase in sensory comfort can have drastic effects on cognition, avoidance behaviors and the ability to attend to other stimuli. Many of my clients report irregular sleep/wake cycles, with much “down time” spent recovering from situations which cause sensory overload. Taking care of yourself ahead of time when facing a sensory challenging setting can prevent “sensory hangover”, and is part of taking care of yourself.

Stay tuned for more on how sensory oversensitivity may be a contributing factor to talent and giftedness so often seen in adults with Asperger’s.