What have you waited a long time for?

Summer. Realistically, it always feels like it’s an age away. Sadly, at the moment, I find myself living in England. This is a country where winter doesn’t just last forever but is a near-endless time of darkness, since the sun comes up late and never appears to become bright, going down in the middle of the afternoon. It is unsurprising that in this kind of climate everyone seems to be angry and miserable all the time. What confuses me is how people inhabited these islands in the first place. I know as soon as I can get an offer from an American college, I’ll be on the first plane out again. We are currently in the middle of hurricane-force winds and falling ice mixed with rain. There’s one upside, though — for the first time in months, the wind is actually so strong it’s blowing away most of the miserable cloud cover and it’s as bright as it’s likely going to get around here until the spring makes longer days possible. It does, however, feel like the wind is blowing straight through the walls, especially at the windows and doors, meaning that I have been relegated to living most of my days wrapped in blankets. Yes, I’ve put tape and soft things there to try to mitigate the problem but when the construction is as bad as it usually is around here, you can stand a meter away from the window and feel the brutal chill from outside and there’s no tape in the world that’s going to solve that one. I have a far better solution but it involves an airport and finally saying goodbye to this place. Anybody’s department hiring tenure-track in creative writing? Definitely hit me up.

That being said, though, I’ve always found summer to be the thing I most long for for most of the year during the majority of my life. The first reason for that is something I’ve talked about a few times recently — that as a student, school was nothing more than a nightmare of desperation and summer was the only way to escape it, not to mention that it meant far more time with my family, both my parents and my extended family, which was definitely a bonus. The second part, though, is what I’m going to talk about today.

As is often typical of people on the spectrum, I suffer from Sensory Processing Disorder, a truly awkwardly-named condition, often abbreviated SPD, rather uninspired, I agree, and sounding far too much like it can be protected against with the use of thin prophylactics while engaging in extracurricular rituals that I find both disgusting and disinteresting. What this comes down to is that my sensory perception is rather different than most people’s. It’s different in a predictable way, though, and that’s what I figure might be useful to talk about, as most people see anything autism-related as being a bit of a black box and confusing to the neurotypical mind. I assure you very little of it is but we’ll just talk about this one for the moment.

First, how do we sense things? Regardless of the mind function (even in animals, for that matter), sense organs are trigged by something. I’m going to use skin and touch but they all work in loosely the same manner. When there is contact made, an electrical impulse fires (some of the impulses are electrochemical but that’s not a necessary distinction to make so we’re just going to ignore that) in a sensory nerve ending and is relayed to the neural processing component relevant to that organ in the brain. When it arrives, if it was a benign trigger, the brain receives the message as touch. If it was a sudden and unpleasant trigger, the brain receives it as pain and there is typically an aversion response — you yank your hand way from a flame, for example.

I’m going to assume you’re with me on this still. It’s useful to remember that the same goes for things like smell or sound. Most of it is simply relayed in detail to the brain for further processing and if it’s particularly painful, it triggers an automated aversion reaction like covering your ears or holding your breath. They’re not completely instantaneous but they’ve been practiced for years and you can do them without any active thinking, generally speaking. The important part about this is that the difference between what we feel as painful and what we just process as sensory data to be processed now or later is not a question of what caused it but how the brain treats the information. A touch example makes it fairly clear. If you were standing under a window and someone standing there dropped a ball from above on your unsuspecting head, it’s quite likely you would respond to it as pain, likely being somewhat displeased that a ball had been dropped on your head. I’m not a fan of having things dropped on me and most people aren’t. For obvious reasons.

Now imagine that you’re playing soccer. If you haven’t ever engaged in this, I’m sure you’ve seen it done, at least in a video. I’m not really a fan of playing (and especially not of watching) team sports but I did play a little as a child and I even coached a couple of soccer teams when I was starting out as a teacher — admittedly, coaching and helping out with young adults playing sports is far more fun from my perspective than playing the game but perhaps that’s just because I’m a teacher at heart and encouraging young people is part of my personality that doesn’t go away just because it’s after school and outside. One of the typical ways of receiving the ball in soccer is to make contact with it against your head, sending it off in another direction. For the sports-unfriendly, this is called heading the ball. If you’ve tried it, you probably discovered that it’s nowhere near as painful as it looks. You step into it, make contact, the ball goes off where you expect it to (or not, if you’re me) and keep playing. The ball hits with at least the same amount of pressure as the one dropped on your head from the window but it’s not painful. Why?

Because the brain interprets the signal as ok, as expected, as a generic signal rather than a painful one. That is, I admit, a hugely simplistic way of looking at what is a highly complex and only partially-understood process but I’m just pointing out the basic notion of how pain works in the realm of physical sensation. The simplest way to think of this is that touch and pain are only different in how the brain interprets them — when an anesthetic numbs the area, for example, you don’t stop having the potential to get hurt if you were to hit your body hard but you no longer feel the pain because the signals going to the brain don’t get there. Pain isn’t something that happens at the point of contact. It’s an interpretation.

Why have I gone to so much trouble to describe this? Because my brain doesn’t work properly to deal with these things. People have this tendency of thinking of us on the spectrum as “neurologically different” or “neurologically diverse” and that’s fine but there are some things that aren’t different or diverse in the “multiple ways of doing things is good” sort of way but are just problems. This is one of them. Being hypersensory is a disaster unless you are able to completely escape the modern world.

What it means is that most sensations are sensed at a far higher level of intensity than for those who are neurotypical. I’ll give you an example. If you shake hands with someone (a rather odd tradition in the west that has always confused me — I know the history but it was silly even in the days of swords), you likely feel light pressure against the skin of your hands. I and others who are hypersensory feel this skin-on-skin contact as full-on pain, much in the way that it feels to have boiling water poured on your skin. Actually, in my case, that’s exactly what skin-to-skin contact usually feels like. The sound of music from the house next door has the pounding intensity of gunshots a few centimeters from my ears. The smell of diesel from the delivery truck going down the road makes it impossible to breathe without choking and feeling dazed.

While not everyone who is hypersensory feels the same degree of pain or feels it in the same way, it’s usually expected that all sensations from at least one sense organ (usually touch) and often all of them are increased to such a point that what most people experience as normal or even pleasant or positive sensations are well into the realm of painful and aversion-causing.

It’s a little less predictable than it being absolute. I love music but how I experience it changes not just day to day but minute to minute. I can hold someone I love in my arms and comfort them as they cry but that same contact may feel like holding onto a flaming piece of wood another time. There are many things we (and by we I mean the entirety of medical science) don’t know about the mitigating factors and causes of sensory disorders, especially those that increase sensitivity to stimuli. But the important part to keep in mind is that those things that are desired are usually better tolerated by our minds than those things that are not. If you think that’s something specific to spectrum inhabitants, that’s why I mentioned the soccer ball on the head — this applies to everyone. The only difference is where the crossover point is between sensation and pain.

Anyway, I hope that’s somewhat useful for those of you who interact with us on a continuous basis and hear things like “I can feel the wind against my skin indoors and can’t stand up” throughout the winter. I long for summer. Actually, I long for a place where winter is a word other people use and simply never applies. But here I go, back into the storm…