Sensory Processing in Neurodiversity

Have you ever wondered, well I have,

About how when I say, say red, for example,

There’s no way of knowing if red

Means the same thing in your head

As red means in my head when someone says red.”

Lyrics of Quiet by Tim Minchin, from Matilda the Musical

This is an interesting one, isn’t it? I remember having conversations about this when I was about 9 or 10: how do we know that we all perceive the world in the same way?

Because we already know that we don’t, don’t we?

We all understand that some people perceive the world differently. Colour vision deficiency (“colour blindness”) is widely understood. Pregnant women can have an increased sensitivity to smell. As we age, we lose the ability to hear very high and very low sound frequencies. And men and women often experience the same ambient temperature slightly differently.

Similarly, some neurodivergent people experience sensory inputs differently to the majority, too. 

Sensory differences are required as part of the criteria for an autism diagnosis. And although not required for an ADD/ADHD diagnosis, they are commonly seen as part of that profile too. The same is true of dyslexia, Tourette Syndrome and OCD among others.

What is it like to experience the world in this way?

Well, there are a range of ways we can experience sensory inputs. While some people might be hypersensitive, others might be hyposensitive. This means that while one person might be reaching for their jumper when the temperature’s 100 degrees, someone else might be out in the snow in shorts and t-shirt. And while for some the biggest differences might be in auditory or visual perception, others might find touch or taste their biggest challenge.

I guess everyone experiences the world differently if there’s that much variation?

Wouldn’t it be great if we lived in a society that normalised different sensory experiences. But in reality, that doesn’t happen. Sensory differences might be the reason your friend declines an invitation for a drink after work, especially if they know you’re going to a noisy bar. It might be the reason they wear the same jumper day in, day out (the one that doesn’t have scratchy tags, perhaps). It might be the reason they eat the same lunch every day; not because they particularly like the texture or taste of that specific BLT, but because the sandwich bar is the closest shop to the office and the BLT is stocked next to the till, so choosing that each day limits exposure to the echoing chatter of other customers, the clink of tea spoons on saucers, the fluorescent lighting…

Someone who is hypersensitive might describe this as everything coming in at 100% volume. You know when you take a photo in portrait mode and it blurs out the background so that just the subject is in focus? Some brains don’t do that. All the sliders on the mixing desk are up to max. This is what can give some people a brilliant eye for detail or memory for specifics, but in some circumstances that same person might not be able to “see the wood for the trees”.

What does this mean for neurodivergent people?

It’s really important to acknowledge that different people have different sensory experiences, because the challenges these bring and the solutions they require might not seem particularly logical to a neurotypical person.

Ultimately, we want to make sure we are working on as level a playing field as possible, and maybe that means letting your friend sit in the seat with their back to the busy bar. Maybe it means understanding that they’ve put their headphones in on the bus to avoid overwhelm. Or perhaps avoiding incidents like the one my ex-colleagues and I still refer to, 10 years on, as “sardine-gate”. I’ll leave that one to your imagination, but suffice to say it’s still vivid memory for many of us!!

The Double Empathy Problem

Have you ever told a joke that just didn’t land? You know, the ones where you’re expecting your audience to belly laugh, and they meet you with an awkward silence…..? Imagine having that happen most days; so often that you stop telling jokes anymore because you can’t gauge which ones will land and which ones won’t.

Some people who are “neurodivergent” (this is the opposite of “neurotypical” and encompasses things like dyslexia, autism, ADHD, and so on) spend a great deal of their lives having this happen to them. But not just when they tell jokes. Sometimes when they are having a conversation, their intonation results in a similar response. Sometimes the words they choose to get their point across. Sometimes their volume.

The thing is, recent research has shown that this isn’t a one-way issue (though neurodivergent people could probably have told you that already!). There’s a concept in Autism Research called the “Double Empathy Problem” and this, simply put, is the idea that when two people with different experiences of the world interact, they will struggle to empathise with each other: You don’t understand why I’m blunt? I don’t understand why you beat around the bush.

What has this got to do with neurotypical people?

Well, this recent research has looked at the way neurodivergent (specifically autistic) and neurotypical people communicate with each other. What it has found, is that whether you are talking about information transfer, facial expressions or rapport, groups made up of solely autistic people score as highly in each of these areas as solely neurotypical groups. The scores only drop when you bring the two neurotypes together. This is important because it shows that autistic people are not “deficient” in these skills, they just do it in a way neurotypical people don’t understand.

This suggests we should be mindful that not all our brains work the same way, we don’t all communicate the same way, and we should all play our part in making communication clear and transparent.

And you never know, if you understand your friends a little better, and if they understand you a little better, they might just laugh a little louder at your jokes!

Where can I find more information?

Check out this YouTube video (the explanation of the study starts about 6 minutes in, but the intro is great too), or this tongue-in-cheek titled interview: The Problem with Autistic Communication is Non-Autistic People