An interesting part of being on the spectrum is the way internal emotional states effect interpretation of and response to external stimuli. For autistic spectrum (AS) children this often appears to outsiders as bad behaviour or meltdowns for no reason. For AS adults it can lead to heightened anxiety or frustration or anger, again for no apparent reason.
For example, we are sitting at home watching tv, the volume hasn’t been changed but my internal emotional state has changed because of either something I am watching or reading or due to fatigue. I can feel myself becoming more and more agitated and frustrated as the tv sounds louder and louder. It isn’t actually any louder, I just hear it louder and LOUDER. Then it starts to really irritate me, to the point of anger, and if I can’t or don’t turn the tv volume down at this point I will become enraged.
Now if I wasn’t fatigued or upset/distressed, the volume would not have been an issue, the sensory sensitivity and resultant ‘challenging behaviour’ would have been prevented. However, it wasn’t prevented, so the next best thing it to interrupt the frustration and prevent anger or interrupt the anger to prevent rage…. Simple in this case, turn the tv volume down. But, for a child in a classroom, turning down the volume of their peers and/or the teacher is not possible and therefore the internal emotion keeps intensifying until it explodes in a meltdown or shutdown. To the teacher, there is no reason, or it is blamed on the last thing the teacher heard/saw, often a request to start, continue or stop working. The AS child is then mistakenly labelled as non-compliant and badly behaved as it is assumed they are having a tantrum because they don’t want to do their work. This is quite understandable as there was no change in the sensory input for the teacher or the AS child, but the AS child had interpreted and responded differently to the same sensory input.
There is no easy answer for the AS child or adult, as we get older we learn some (or all) of our triggers and how our internal emotions effect our ability to self regulate and cope with sensory input, however it is completely invisible to others. This is not only because they do not have the same change in response to the same sensory input, but also because we do not always remember to express our internal emotions (if indeed we can identify them in the first place). So then when we do express these emotions it is because they have exploded out or imploded in and we are not able to control them anymore!
Yes, I do turn the tv down when I am sad or distressed or angry, but when other family members can’t hear it anymore, it needs to go up to a level they can hear….
For others on the spectrum lights become more intense, so bright they feel as if they are burning skin or eyes… Yet others temperature can become more intense…. I can feel as if my skin is literally on fire from the inside out…
Moving our bodies physically can provide respite or comfort or calming. AS kids need to be able to move around freely to prevent meltdowns and more importantly to prevent that internal emotional state becoming unbearable. AS adults need to learn their own trigger interactions and plan how to manage or prevent these and to explain to our families and friends exactly what our experiences are in this area, because they are quite different to the experiences of those not on the spectrum.