The visual sensory aspects of the way autism plays out for me most of the time means that I get too much information delivered – things are too big, too bright, too bold – typically too much to endure all day. Practically, this means I need to accommodate my sensory system in a variety of ways.
Let’s take but one example from my life where visual overload is a pretty constant problem. Here are some things I have found helpful:
- Environmental Accommodations for Overhead Lights
Most of the time I simply do what I need unless it affects others. For example, at work I might turn off the overhead light when working on my laptop. I do not need the overhead light and, more importantly, the bright boldness of it along with the electronic buzz and the visual fallout (looks like sparkling dust fireworks in the air – like a constant private fireworks show of sorts). I have an office mate so need to take into consideration her need to see what she is doing so sometimes it doesn’t work well to turn the light off.
Because turning off the overhead light isn’t always an option, I have a light cover that magnetically attaches to the frame of the overhead ceiling light. It is there at all times. It cuts down on the visual fallout from the light and cuts some of the brightness. This means I can endure it for a longer time, which is a good thing at work because I can be more productive.
I have also found that I can make other environmental adjustments that while they are not directly targeted for my visual sensory overwhelm, they turn out to be helpful. This is because every sensory difficulty I have in my body adds up. Think of adding water to a glass. Each sensory difficulty adds a bit more water. While each bit of water by itself will not make the glass overflow, when they are added together it can cause the water to overflow and spill out of the glass.
Other things I pay attention to in the sensory department so as to prevent sensory overwhelm have to do with seating. I do not have a stable proprioceptive sense. This means that I always need to pay conscious attention to sitting in a chair. If I sit in a chair with arms I have to devote less attention to monitoring my body in the chairs. If there are no other people around to see me I use another chair for a footstool of sorts. When I have the back of my legs touching a hard surface and arms on the chair I am sitting on I need to pay very minimal attention to sitting in the chair. I can really concentrate and get some serious work done! This is because I get the most proprioceptive feedback about where my body is located so I do not need to consciously track it.
If I have the right chair and my legs touching another chair it I have more energy to deal with the overhead light assault than if I am sitting in a way that doesn’t support me well. And conversely, if I do not have the overhead light on I have more resources to devote dealing with sitting in a chair that doesn’t support my unreliable proprioception.
There are several more environmental factors that I can adjust, but using these two examples serve to illustrate the example of how to make sure I do not fill up that glass with water too full. It is important for me to understand all the various environmental things I can adjust. This often is dependent upon my various work tasks as they have different locations and different combinations of people and require different sorts of input from me. This means some times I can make environmental adjustments and other times I cannot. I do the best I can to remain productive for the maximum amount of hours while at work.
- Daily Evening Sensory Integration
One of the things I do to maximize my productiveness at work is to make sure my sensory system is in top shape before I walk out of my house each day. This takes some planning, but it is entirely doable. It is the deal breaker for me because even if I can employ all the environmental accommodations I need at work, I still will not be able to be productive the whole day if I do not do my homework so to speak.
One of the things I do is to make sure I have several hours of quiet time the evening before a workday. For me this means no electronic sounds (something very wearing on my system). I do not listen to music, watch TV or use any other device that emits sound.
In addition I must rest my visual system. This means I cannot read email or articles on line that require scrolling during my couple of hours of evening down time. What has really helped me immensely is using my phone for email. I can open the email and if I can read it all on my phone screen I am able to answer it. If the email requires scrolling I don’t even read it, but save it for when I am at my desk. Since I have figured out that the scrolling is the problem with email I have become more efficient with keeping up with email because I can do all the non-scrolling emails anytime and save the scrolling emails for later. This allows me to be productive during my sensory down time in the evening.
I go to work where I have an office 2-3 times per week. The rest of the days I work from my home office or travel for my consulting business. Regardless of which work I am doing the next day, I must have the couple of hours of sensory down time the evening before. When I do not have this I start the day at a disadvantage. It is like starting with my glass already half full. This means I will be less productive from the start. My livelihood depends on me being able to take in information from multiple sources, think it through quickly, adding in my understanding and knowledge and sharing reasonable recommendations in real time – on the spot. I cannot afford to start out with any water in my glass!
- Daily Morning Sensory Integration
Another thing I do to make sure my sensory system is at it’s best, enabling me to be and do my best during the work day is I set my alarm for 2-3 hours before I need to leave the house in the morning. I need this much time for sensory integration along with getting ready for work. Activities that are helpful change over time. At this point in time I am walking for at least an hour each morning. I sometimes include stretching exercises.
- Daily Weekly and Monthly Sensory Integration
I additionally employ other sensory strategies in a mix that serves my needs. Massage, deep pressure of water in swimming pool/hot tub, pressure clothing, weighted blanket and various exercise routines have all served me well at various times. This means I sometimes use a gym or a YMCA pool. Other times I do various workouts at home. I also make appointments for massage and own pressure clothing, weighted blankets and therapy balls available for use.
I hope by sharing some of my personal examples others will be encouraged that it is entirely possible to figure out what your sensory system needs to be a high quality, productive worker. It does take work and diligence, but for me, it is something that can be done.
- Daily Blessings
I also want to mention that there is a silver lining so to speak. Even though my sensory system gives me lots of difficulty and takes several hours each morning and evening to stabilize along with accommodations all day long, there is a positive side too! I have recently found out that not all people see the everyday things that I am able to see. For example, each day I see airwaves. I see the outdoor air moving in undulating waves. This movement is the result of all things in the atmosphere – heat, light, moisture, wind, etc. I know from having lived a long time that certain sorts of airwaves mean that sunsets over the water will look a certain way.
Yesterday I knew, based on the air waves I could see during the day, that the sunset over the lake would include a wide vibrant solid red swatch across the horizon. This doesn’t happen very often. I planned my day accordingly so that I could be at the lake for sunset. Being able to “read” the airwaves I see allows me to know when to be where to take beautiful pictures. It is one of the blessings of my autism. Here is a picture of last night’s sunset.
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Endow, J. (2013). Painted Words: Aspects of Autism Translated. Cambridge, WI: CBR Press.
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JUDY ENDOW, MSW
Judy Endow, MSW is an autistic author, artist and international speaker on a variety of autism related topics. Read more from Judy on Ollibean here and on her website www.judyendow.com.
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Best article I have ever read to fully explain sensory sensitivites! Well done!