This is the fifth (and at least for now, last) in a series of posts about various cognitive theories of autism, which attempt to describe the outward signs of autism and Asperger’s as resulting from some difference in the mind or brain.  Here are the first four:

The fifth theory of autism I want to talk about is the idea that the traits and behaviors of autism are linked to various sensory and perceptual issues that make an autistic person’s perception of the world different from a non-autistic person’s.  What if the behaviors associated with autism (such as rocking in place, ignoring outside input, or social awkwardness) are not indicative of a damaged or alien way of thinking but actually a logical, human response to a world that is perceived very differently by autistics?

I was originally planning to link to the article that gave me the idea to do this series of posts in the first place, which was about a team of researchers looking for a physical cause for the sensory issues experienced by autistics, but the article has disappeared.

This theory is probably less developed than any of the others I’ve covered; a lot of work still needs to be done.  I hope that researchers continue to examine it, though, because it explores a valuable source of information that the other theories sometimes overlook:  the accounts of autistic people themselves.

One person who has written a lot about sensory issues in autism is Dr. Olga Bogdashina, founder and president of the first Autism Society in the Ukraine.  The understanding of autism among professionals in the nations of the former Soviet Union has been even less than in the U.S. or U.K.  Bogdashina encountered this when she was seeking advice to help her autistic son.  One consultant pronounced her son a hopeless case and said that it would be better if he had died.  Bogdashina’s response was “Better for whom; me, him, or you?”

Bogdashina sought to understand more about autism by looking at it from a different perspective– that of the autistic person.  She noted that autistics commonly describe difficulty dealing with sensory perceptions that are somehow hypersensitive, under-sensitive, or distorted:

“It is widely reported that autistic people have unusual (from non-autistic point of view) sensory-perceptual experiences. These experiences may involve hyper- or hyposensitivity, fluctuation between different ‘volumes’ of perception, difficulty interpreting a sense, etc. All these experiences are based on real experiences, like those of non-autistic people, but these experiences may look/sound/feel, etc. different, or they may be interpreted differently. “

Despite the major role that sensory and perceptual issues play in autistic people’s descriptions of their experiences, these factors have not been the focus of much research recently.  As a matter of fact, if you look at the diagnostic criteria for Asperger’s or for autism, you won’t find sensory issues listed there at all!  But I can attest that they play a major role in the discussions of coping with life that I see online from people with Asperger’s or autism, and I have noticed their effect in my own life (especially when I was a child, but I am certain sensory issues still influence my life today).

Bogdashina argues that treatments of autism that merely seek to stop a person’s odd or offensive behavior are missing the point.  She gives the example of one family that could not get their autistic 8-year-old to stop taking off all of his clothes and running around naked– clearly a behavior that is unacceptable!  They had tried encouraging him by promising him a reward of chocolate if he obeyed, but he still kept shedding his clothes.

The reason he was reacting that way was that he perceived the feel of the fabric as physically painful.  Promising a reward if he obeyed was no more effective than promising a child with broken legs candy if he would run.  What really needed to be dealt with was the sensory issue.  Would a different material be less painful?   Would it help to cut out the tags?  Is there a gradual way to help the child become less sensitive to the feel of the clothing?

Bogdashina sums up her argument by asking for a little understanding from non-autistic people.  (And I’d note that this would actually apply to autistic people too, as no two people’s sensory issues are exactly the same.  I am not bothered by some things that would be unbearable to others, and I need to try not to take it personally if someone is uncomfortable because of a sensory issue they can’t help.)

“The sensory environment is very important for autistic people. They lack the ability to adjust to sensory assaults other people accept as normal. If we accommodate the environment and try to ‘keep it clean’ in order to meet their very special needs, the world could become more comfortable for them. With sensory needs met, problem behaviour becomes less of an issue. If there were no danger to be attacked, you would not need defense. To make the world safer for autistic individuals the price would not be very high – ‘just stop singing’ when they ask you to. And if they cannot ask because of their communication problems, use your knowledge and imagination to find out what they need.”

Bogdashina does a good job of classifying the kinds of sensory issues that people may struggle with– I think there’s material for some more posts there!