By Olga Bogdashina
In recent decades there have appeared different conceptions of autism, which highlight sensory-perceptual abnormalities as the basis of core features of the disorder. Some researchers describe autism as a disorder of the senses rather than a social dysfunction, and hypothesise that all symptoms of autism are simply a consequence of the brain injury that makes brains of autistic children perceive inputs from the world differently from non-autistic brains. Thus, abnormal perceptions might give rise to high levels of anxiety, this, in turn, results in the obsessive or compulsive behaviours, thus making the more commonly accepted criteria (impairments in social interaction, communication and imagination), in fact, secondary developmental problems (Delacato).
Though, it is probably not as simple as that and the syndrome of autism is a far more complex phenomenon to be explained by differences in sensory experiences, sensory-perceptual problems DO play an important role in autism.
Everything we know about the world and ourselves has come through our senses. However, we are not born with ready-made strategies to perceive the world around us. Thus, vision or hearing, e.g., means the ability to receive sights and sounds, but this ability does not mean to comprehend visual and auditory images. We have to learn how to see and hear with meaning. Through interaction with the environment we develop our visual and auditory processing skills, learn how to discriminate different stimuli from chaos of sounds, shapes, patterns, movements, and learn how to connect sensory images with meaning.
If one (or several) of the senses are lost (e.g., blindness, deafness), the other senses develop to compensate and create the balance. However, the sensory-perceptual worlds of blind/deaf people are very different from the sensory perceptual world of people without these disabilities. E.g., the blind live in a tactile/auditory/olfactory world without any visual images. This is by no means a dysfunctional world. It is rather a completely different world. Instead of visual images they have tactile-motor-auditory-olfactory concepts. The blind compensate lack of vision by other senses (often very acute) and reconstruct their ‘visionless’ world rich of ‘sound pictures’, ‘tactile images’ and olfactory perceptions that is very difficult for sighted people even to imagine.
With autism the situation is very confusing. It is not that their senses work or do not work, it is that they work differently. What complicates the issue even more, is that these differences (and difficulties) are ‘invisible’ to outsiders (‘they are not blind, are they?’) and are very difficult to imagine by those who assume there is only one possible way to perceive the world (‘you either see or you don’t, there is nothing in-between’).
The personal accounts of autistic individuals reveal that one of the main problems they experience is their abnormal (different?) perception and many autistic authors consider autism as largely a condition relating to sensory processing. Temple Grandin (1996) suggests that there is a continuum of sensory processing problems for most autistic people, which goes from fractured disjointed images at one end to a slight abnormality at the other.
The real world and the perceived world (i.e. our mental image of the world) differ. Though we live in the same physical world and deal with the same ‘raw material’, differences in sensory functioning create invisible walls between autistic and non-autistic people. The metaphorical descriptions of children and adults with autism, such as ‘aliens’, ‘Martians’ – become factual! They do live in a different world! The same stimuli look, sound, feel, smell differently for them. When we want to show our love and affection by hugging the child, he pulls away as the pain from the touch is unbearable. So what is our interpretation? – ‘He doesn’t love me.” We are often ‘deaf’ to the sounds our child cannot tolerate (e.g., sounds of fans working, kettle boiling). We are ‘blind’ to a 60-cycle flickering of fluorescent lights that makes the room to pulsate. Just because we are ‘deaf/blind/dumb, etc.’ to the stimuli our little ‘alien’ perceives with extreme acuteness, we describe his behaviours as bizarre, odd, inappropriate. However, as the systems work differently their responses to sensory stimuli are ‘normal’ (from autistic point of view), though different and unconventional for us, living in a parallel world.
The sensory problems in autism are often overlooked. As children literally live in a parallel (differently reconstructed) world and are misunderstood (= mistreated), they are likely to display behavioral problems, such as self-stimulation, self-injury, aggression, avoidance, rigidity, high anxiety, panic attacks, etc.
Likewise we never find it strange or bizarre if the blind child touches things to recognise them, we should not demand from a child whose sensory-perceptual problems are not straightforwardly visible to ‘behave himself’ and ‘stop mouthing and smelling objects’ (when he tries to recognise things). We accept that we cannot cure blindness and we do not waste time and effort to teach a visually impaired child to recognise colors. We see our task to help this child function using compensatory strategies, and adjusting the environment to make it easier for him to orient in space. We accept and respect his disability that, if appropriately addressed, does not interfere with the quality of life.
Let us do the same for our autistic children and try to imagine what it is like to see through their eyes, to hear through their ears, etc. It is crucial to understand how the qualitative differences of sensory perception associated with autism affect each particular child. Often it is not the treatment and the number of hours you work with your child, but in ‘what perceptual world’ you both are, i.e. whether you are in one and the same perceptual world or in two parallel ones. Understanding each particular person’s specific difficulties and how they may affect this person’s functioning is vital in order to adjust environment and adopt methods and strategies to help the person function in the community. What makes the matter even more complicated, is that no two autistic people appear to have the exactly same patterns of sensory-perceptual experiences.
The book ‘Sensory Perceptual Issues in Autism and Asperger Syndrome: Different Sensory Experiences – Different Perceptual Worlds’ published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers in 2003 (available at Amazon) focuses on the role of sensory perceptual problems in autism as identified by autistic individuals themselves and looks at assessment and intervention issues to eliminate these problems and enhance the strengths.