What happens when we experience sensory or emotional overload? Well, different things. Sometimes we get migraines, nausea, sometimes we have meltdowns, and sometimes we just stim. Stimming is simply something we do to soothe ourselves when we are upset, anxious, overloaded, or in pain; to release unpleasant feelings or energy. Soothing stims happen because someone or something is pushing our autistic buttons. We stim from sensory issues, and we stim from anxiety and social or emotional issues. Not stimming when you feel anxious means you’re not releasing the build-up of tension and you risk having a meltdown, or migraine, or acquiring a tic. The trouble with repressing stims is that we tend to pick up destructive habits, or else we just internalise our anxieties and pains instead of releasing them as they happen. (Rudy Simone – Aspergirls: Empowering Females with Asperger Syndrome) [UK Kindle Edition]
Upon reading more about sensory seeking, sensitivities and differences, I started thinking about what I do which could be associated with it, and I was blown away by the length of the list when I came to the end… and I don’t even know if this is everything! It’s really hard looking at yourself in this respect because you know that you like what you like, but you don’t necessarily realise that you like it because of your sensory needs.
- Coarse face scrub – face doesn’t feel clean without it – been using St Ives Apricot Scrub for years.
- Chewing gum – I feel anxious when I don’t have gum in my handbag. I like the strong minty flavour and don’t like my mouth feeling gross.
- Nail biter for YEARS – I had to start getting gel overlays to stop, though I will still pick the polish off when nearing my next appointment, particularly if I’m bored or need to do something with my hands. I first got gel nails in Dec 2011 before my wedding so I would be used to having them on my hands before the big day (it wasn’t routine!). I will still occasionally tap the grown-out part of the nail between my teeth, though not to bite it off.
- Lip Balm – I cannot go to sleep without putting minty Burt’s Bees lip balm on my lips, and I feel anxious when I don’t have a tube in my handbag.
- Back Scratching – ever since I was small, I always loved having my back scratched by my parents, and this has carried on with Paul.
- Hair Brushing – I really like having someone else brush my hair with a bristly brush, as well as the ‘spidery’ wiry head scratcher.
- Hair Style – I hate having wispy strands of hair falling into my face and when I go for a haircut, I tend to ask for a tidy up of the same style and ask for the fringe bits to be kept long enough for me to tuck behind my ear (because I get really cross when I cannot get it to stay behind my ears). Otherwise, I end up tying my hair back part way when it starts driving me crazy. There have been one or two occasions when my anxiety was particularly piqued that I very nearly took a pair of scissors to my hair to get it to stop bothering me, but the more rational part of my mind stepped in and I ended up tying it back. When I pull my hair back, I need to smooth it down at the top of my head, because I don’t like having any bumps in my hair… I don’t know how else to explain that, but I think it looks untidy otherwise.
- Twiddle objects – I keep a tiny tin of pliable putty in my bag and use it at work to help me concentrate in meetings or at my desk. I find it very calming. I also always keep a hair tie on my wrist in case I need to tie my hair back (see above), but it also acts as a good discreet twiddle object. I also love ripping used sheets of paper (about 10-15 sheets at once) going for recycling.
- Drinks – I like water to be ice cold (or as cold as possible), as tepid/room temperature water makes me feel ill. I can also taste the difference between tap and filtered water, and find unfiltered water makes my stomach feel weird.
- Crocheted afghan on our bed – I’ve always loved this Technicolor blanket my mom made, and to this day, I love to weave my fingers through the holes in it (like between the stitched bits, not stretching through the actual stitching). I especially do this at night as I’m falling asleep, and I always have it on the bed, regardless of the weather.
- Dirty fingers – I hated “messy play” as a child and always needed a napkin or paper towel nearby. The only messy food I like is chicken wings, and even then I have to clean my fingers between bites. I also really hate the feeling of a long strand of hair stuck on my hand after a shower (especially if it’s someone else’s, which doubly grosses me out) and I don’t like touching rusty metal with my bare hands (e.g. side gate and garage locks).
- Dirty dishwater – I have a severe phobia of putting my hands (ungloved) into dirty dishwater, because I remember as a kid putting my hands in the warm soapy water, thinking it was nice, and then pulled my hand out and had a scraggly bit of egg on the back of my hand, which sickened me. Now, if I need to do washing up, I have to wear gloves, because I can’t bear the thought of a rogue piece of food floating in the dishwater ending up touching my hands.
- Hot surfaces/water – my fingertips are super sensitive to anything hot. Paul likes to warm plates in the oven for tea, and if he leaves them in a few minutes too long, I can’t pick them up without an oven glove or towel, even though Paul has no problem picking them up (he says his hands are “made of asbestos”). Same with hot water when washing up, I need the gloves on because I can’t touch the water directly without it causing me pain.
- Tapping/drumming fingers – If I’m trying to refocus on what I was last working on and my concentration was broken, I’ll sometimes tap my fingers rhythmically on the table to help refocus my mind. I’ll sometimes do this on the steering wheel when I’m driving and listening to music.
- Food 1 – at lunch, I always alternate bites of a sandwich/roll (soft) with a crisp (crunchy), and don’t like having a sandwich/roll without a packet of crisps. This has been the case for as long as I can remember. This will sometimes extend itself to other meals, but not every meal every time.
- Food 2 – I have some very strong aversions to a few foods, namely bananas, mushrooms, pickles and sliced tomatoes. My Dad always tried to get me to eat bananas when I was a kid, but I always hated the taste, the smell and the texture of them – still do. I’m convinced mushrooms do not agree with my digestive system, because even when I wasn’t aware that they were finely chopped into spaghetti sauce my stepmom made, I ended up having *ahem* a bad time of it afterwards. With tomatoes, I love ketchup and cannot get enough of it when having chips or a burger, but I cannot stand the large slices of tomato that come on sandwiches or burgers at a restaurant, so usually ask for it to be left off (and get a bit annoyed when that request is ignored). I used to love pickles when I was a kid but I think I’ve grown out of it, because they make me feel ill now and, like with tomatoes, I ask for them to be left off (and get a bit annoyed when that request is ignored). Even when they are put on a burger (for instance), it is easy enough for me to remove them, but I see that as wasteful and it taints my burger with the juices from those respective foods, which I don’t like in the first place. I never send it back because that just irritates staff and I don’t want to wait longer for my food but it will reflect in any gratuity left because, as far as I’m concerned, that’s not the best level of service provided.
- Food 3 – Paul and I do tend to stay to the same few set meals and I do get bored with them, but it’s difficult to branch out too far and try anything new. We see food prep in three levels: 1 – ready meals (which we don’t really do except for a frozen or fresh pizza from a supermarket); 2 – food assembly (cook fresh chicken and add jar of curry sauce and microwaved packet of rice and naan bread); and 3 – cooking from scratch (we both work full time and don’t have time for this, nor the freezer space to bulk-cook meals and freeze for later). We end up getting into meal ruts but I’m on both sides of it – It’s routine, but it’s also boring!!
- Food 4 – I don’t like my food touching… never did when I was a kid, and though I’m more tolerant of it now, I will still separate items (e.g. a small pile of mixed veg next to oven chips, I’ll push the veg away from the chips so they’re not touching and any water from the veg doesn’t make the chips soggy). I will also clear a spot on my plate for sauce (e.g. ketchup, etc.) so that the wrong foods (e.g. veg) don’t touch it. It sounds crazy writing it out, but it’s something I’ve always done. When I was a kid, my Dad would mash together his whole plate of roast beef, mashed potatoes, veg, etc. and it would make me feel ill looking at it, even though I had the exact same meal on my plate. I like knowing what I’m eating by being able to see it.
- Glasses and sunglasses – I end up needing to wear sunglasses even when it’s overcast but bright, because it just hurts my eyes. I struggle in the open plan area I work because there are a lot of windows, which is nice to see outside, but as there are so many windows around the building, the sun invariably ends up reflecting off other windows, which means trying to close the blinds to stop it shining onto my monitor or reflecting into my eyes can be a nightmare. This was particularly difficult in winter when the sun was setting earlier and was lower in the sky; it’s not so much a problem now. But there are times that I feel it’s too bright, but I look ridiculous wearing my sunglasses, which actually make things too dark. Since switching to contacts, I’m disinclined to go back to wearing glasses full time, and I hate the look of ‘transitions’ lenses and find that I end up feeling pressure points on the sides of my head behind my ears from wearing glasses for too long. I don’t know what to do about this though. Also, I got irritated wearing certain pairs of glasses because while they were even, my head isn’t (I don’t think anyone’s is perfectly symmetrical!), one lens was too close to my eye and I was hyper-aware of my eyelashes brushing up against it with every blink, so I couldn’t stand to wear them anymore. Contacts are so much better for me because there are no smudges which need wiping off, there’s no chance for ‘rays of light’ to shine down when I’m stood under a light because of smudging on the lens, and I am not constantly having to push them back up my nose because of them sliding down!!
- Computer screen settings – I have the window settings on my computer with a grey tint because I find looking at a plain white window too bright and strains my eyes.
- Listening to music while working – being in an open plan office is a nightmare for extraneous sound, so I have sound-isolating earbud headphones which I use with my iPod to listen to familiar music. I choose music that I don’t need to actively listen to, so it literally just acts as a “sonic barrier” from everything else going on around me which causes sensory overload (phones ringing, random conversations going on around me, noises from outside when the windows are open, etc.). It drives me CRAZY though when people start talking to me without getting my attention first, because despite me explaining that I can’t hear them until I take the headphones out, they still do it!! It’s not even like I’m listening to the music that loud – I can still hear my phone ring if it goes – but because I’m focused on whatever I’m doing and not actively listening to what’s going on around me, I am not always aware if someone’s come up next to me and started talking… it does my head in.
- Bright colours have always soothed me… I love rainbow LED lights with a slow fade between colours. It’s difficult to articulate this any further, but I’ve always loved pretty colours. When I discovered that Sensory Rooms were a thing (and subsequently found out what ‘snoezelen’ is), I just thought I’d end up spending most of my time in a room like that… soooo soothing, soooo relaxing…. taking my mind away from everything that worries me. I’d LOVE to make the 3rd bedroom in our house a sensory/snoezelen room, but I know it would cost a fortune. I also have a dedicated folder of apps on my tablet that I call “Calmers” which are a handful interactive sensory apps, with soothing music and swirling colours. Perhaps I knew more about my own needs before I knew I had them!
- When I’m feeling particularly stressed, I like to cuddle up next to Paul and put my head on his chest, as listening to his heartbeat always soothes me. He knows that this is what I do and is very comforting to me when I need a cuddle in this way.
Like I said, this list is not exhaustive, but it’s a fair representation of my sensory differences.