I leaned forward to listen as my best friend Tam described her son. “He pays such attention to detail. He remembers exactly where things are,” she said. “When he goes to summer school and faces a big crowd of kids, he gets overwhelmed. He's sensitive to loud noises, to busy scenes, to wearing socks and hats. When he's part of a play group, he'll usually hang back before joining the other kids. He's paying close attention, analyzing everything before he makes a move. And learning these things about my son helps me to understand some things about myself that I always took for granted … for example, the fact that I can't wear turtleneck sweaters or bracelets on my wrists, or why I hate wearing socks … it's because of the way they feel against my skin. I'm sensitive to touch, and I believe my son is, too.”
I understood, and moreover, I could empathize. Tam had come to these realizations by reading “The Highly Sensitive Child” by Elaine Aron (and I'd just finished reading “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking” by Susan Cain, a work with significant thematic overlap). Thanks to my relationship with my brother, Willie, I knew firsthand that many people with autism are also highly sensitive.
As Tam described her experience, a series of pictures flashed across my mind. Willie, wearing headphones at movies, so that the sound wouldn't overwhelm his senses. Me, pressing my hands to my ears as ambulances screamed past. Willie, unraveling his socks if he felt a single stray thread. Me, not wanting to wear my hair down (despite my friends' prompting) because I wasn't used to the physical sensation of hair resting against my neck. And—perhaps most significantly—the feeling I get before Willie has a meltdown, and the relationship between my (or my parents') level of calm and his ability to calm himself. I feel myself tense before he explodes, and I've noticed a correlation between the ability of the people around Willie to remain calm during a meltdown and his capacity to self-regulate his behavior. Offering him a calm, supportive, low-stimulation atmosphere cannot prevent a meltdown, but it can affect the severity and duration of one.
Indeed, there's something of a relief in knowing that these scenes are linked. There's something validating about the realization that I am a highly sensitive person, and so is my brother. And, moreover, knowing this helps me to better navigate my own life, and better support Willie in his.
And I wondered: What's the connection between high sensitivity and autism? What can people with autism teach us about the experience of being highly sensitive? To answer these questions, I turned first to Elaine Aron's 2009 article on the topic. Aron writes, “In brief, you can best sort out sensitivity from ASDs [Autism Spectrum Disorders] by keeping in mind two differences. First, social perception—HSPs [Highly Sensitive Persons] are generally more skilled at observing what's going on in a social situation, even when they are not joining in. Second, HSPs have intense imaginations and varied interests rather than narrow preoccupations.” Aron notes that many individuals with an ASD have a lower-than-normal sensory threshold, and may require higher-than-normal levels of stimulation.
With that in mind, my second question found a resolution, too. People with autism—be they more or less sensitive to physical stimuli—teach us that there is no one “right” way to experience the world. Every individual has a unique threshold for sensory input, and those thresholds are to be respected, even in the times when they're being stretched. Individuals with autism have paved the way to greater understanding of how sensory thresholds influence one's chances of success in specific endeavors. I think of Scott James' final experience in X-Factor (being required to stand in a small tunnel “filled with shouting, crying, rehearsing people”) and can't help but hope that someday, society may begin to honor and respect differing sensory thresholds, and, in doing so, empower people like Scott (and Willie) to share their gifts and succeed.