Friday, October 2, 2009

The Aspie Senses - Part 1

It's a well known fact that people on the spectrum often have sensory issues but it's probably less well known that these sensory issues can trigger both positive and negative feelings. Sensory issues are one of the major reasons why many aspies find it difficult to work. They are also a major contributor to shutdowns, and to a lesser extent, meltdowns.

The Sense of Hearing
I tend to think that one of the main reasons why I've been successful in the workplace is because my own susceptability to sensory issues is reduced by comparison with other aspies. Being deaf has certainly given me much greater tolerance for the sorts of sounds which irritate my peers. I've been reading Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg's recent series of articles with great interest. Here is someone who is actually using earplugs to reduce her sensory issues - and she's not alone. There are many aspies doing exactly the same thing. Rachel even goes so far as to attend sign language classes to learn a language which is better suited to her reduced sensory state.

My own children are an interesting combination. My eldest does quite a bit of verbal stimming and our mornings are often filled with all kinds of annoying repeated sounds. These sounds don't annoy me unless I'm very close to him but they annoy my wife - and even more so, they annoy his younger brother who has particular sensibilities to sound.

I'm very grateful for my deafness. It's saved me a lot of pain over the years.

Of course, there are four more senses and it's some of these others which can disturb me.

The Sense of Smell
You wouldn't think that smell would be such an important factor but in my case, it is. Once again, I had a very "sheltered" childhood because my my nose had been damaged as a baby in a climbing accident. I climbed a chest of drawers but it fell on me. My allergies were also terrible at the time, it's only years of therapy that has cleared my nose enough to allow me to breathe through it occasionally now. Most of the time, I still use my mouth through force of habit. This apparently makes my breathing very loud and irritating to others but I don't know for sure - I can't hear it you see.

Positive smells
Smelling can be a form of stimming and many aspies seek out smells for comfort. My personal favourite is vanilla and I can happily sniff vanilla for ages. I'm the proud owner of several vanilla candles and I've also got various vanilla essesnces and fragrances. I've purchased (twice) vanilla smelling perfumes for my wife and my favourite cake is... yep... vanilla slice.

I'm also quite partial to coconut ice, not the edible kind - just the smell. Once I found a coconut ice candle and didn't buy it but felt withdrawal symptoms after leaving the shop. Less than two Weeks later I was back, looking for the candle but the shop had sold out. I think I made four more trips out to the shop (which was quite a drive from our house) before giving up. The next time I see a coconut ice candle, I'm buying it.

Of course, it's not only food smells that we seek. I also like mint and the smell of freshly cut wood. Some aspies become addicted to their own body smells and this can often have harmful results. I've heard of aspies who stim by sniffing their own crotch or armpits. There are immediate social consequences if they're caught doing this but there are also long-term social problems. Aspies who stim using their own body odours are unaware that these smells can offend others. They're less inclined to cover the smells with deodorant and they often suffer the social consequences of isolation.

Negative Smells
I can't comment on the positive and negative parts of hearing because I don't hear most of the sounds but I'm surprised by the degree to which smells affect me. It's strange because the negative smells aren't necessarily bad ones. I can sit in a car when someone has been excessively flatulent without having too adverse a reaction (sometimes) but I can't stand to be in a house where someone has been cooking cabbage or cauliflower.

I don't have a problem with general body odours from people around me but I do have massive issues with breath. In fact, there are three distinct types of breath that I just can't stand. Hopefully I won't offend anyone here...

  • "Old people breath"
    I'm not really sure how to describe this except that it seems to be most noticeable with the elderly (and with health fanatics). Perhaps it's vitamin tablets or garlic, whatever it is, I have major issues with it. It causes me real problems socially because I've been in conversation with people and had to keep backing off or abruptly ending a conversation because I can't handle the smell. I get very irritated with myself at these times because usually I don't want to have to turn tail and run.

  • "spicy breath"
    Again, I'm not entirely sure what causes this smell but I think it's chilli stored under specific conditions. I've noticed that a lot of Indian culture people have this breath but I've also discovered it in a tin of chilli tuna. Unlike the "old people" breath which makes me gag, the spicy breath instils an almost violent reaction in me. If I encounter this particular smell, I feel like I need to get away before I become aggressive.

  • "Beer Breath"
    No points for guessing where this problem comes from. It's a classic example of how memories can get linked to smells and are triggered upon recurrence of the smell.
Bad breath isn't the extent of my bad smells experience, there are other smells, like licorice, which I can't stand because it smells so similar to a substance used extensively in my first job; "making dog food".

I'm not quite sure where this post is going yet because I tend to write straight from the heart and let the thoughts mature in my head between posts (hence my part 2's are often quite divergent).

In part 2, I'll look at some of the other senses and then... well, I'll see where to topic wants to go.


Hartley said...

Hey there,

I just have to post my comment that there are SEVEN senses. :) I spend so much time advocating for my son and Sensory Processing Disorder that I just can't stop myself from pointing out that the other two: Vestibular (your sense of balance, which is located in your inner ear) and Proprioception (which is located in your muscles and joints and is responsible for pressure going in and out of your body--throwing, hugging, pushing, pulling, etc).


Ok, I feel better. ;)


Anonymous said...

I havent been diagnosed with Asperger's but Im pretty sure I have it and your blog is awesome!

Speaking of senses, why'd your page change from black to white? Its way too bright now...

Greeno said...

Actually, there may be as many as 15 senses, according to some theories. Temperature/Time/Balance to name but a few more.

Rachel said...

Hi Gavin,

In the past few months, I've had many occasions to wish that I'd been born without hearing. As you mention in your blog, my hearing is very acute and presents me with enormous problems. On the positive side, my aversion to sound has also turned into a resistance to speech. I'm rather happy about that outcome, because I've never learned to cultivate my own silence, and I'm beginning to really like it. No one else has told me that they like it, but I can think of a few people who are feeling quite a bit more relaxed around me these days. ;-)

My sense of sight is also quite acute, and I suffer from seeing asymmetrical patterns just as you do. I don't understand what possesses people to create them! The biggest problem I have with sight is that everything I see is so damned fascinating that I can get completely distracted from the voice of my own thoughts.

BTW, I like the new parchment background. It's a happy medium, and I hope you stick with it.

Eponine said...

Hartley, interesting point. I guess I've just always lumped those together under "touch" but it does make more sense that they're separate.

As for smells, bad breath is a big problem for me. I feel like I'm suffocating when I'm forced to endure it.

I do smell a lot of things - I love the smell of most dog food and treats. My favorites are Hills a/d canned, and CET Hextra rawhide chews. There are two of use at work that are always smelling things lol.

I also like that you point out there is a difference between meltdowns and shutdowns. I always heard them lumped together, but in my experience they are two vastly different things, and I've been trying to explain how they are different.

Lee said...

I have just learned I have AS, after my daughter being diagnosed (she's 9) and my mom has it too....I have an extremely heightened sense of smell, it's weird but I can actually smell if a place has a roach problem (they have a unique odor others cannot smell), I can smell if there's a thunderstorm coming (ozone). In my job I sometimes handle packaged, sealed narcotics (I'm in law enforcement) and I can smell the drugs right through the airtight plastic, like a dog does. I can even tell which drug it is (meth smells particularly different). I even sniffed down a bad outlet in our house, lol. I have heightened hearing, and can hear the high frequency sound of the "teen buzz" (google it if u don't know) in my 40's when no-one else can. I notice visual patterns, my big thing is counting letters in words/phrases and seeing if they are "symmetrical" (can they be grouped/odd total, even total, balanced/unbalanced, etc.) Anyways thanks for the blog, just found it and I am sure to read it more.

Gavin Bollard said...

Wow Lee, that's fascinating. Some of those skills would be really handy in a job but I can also see how they would make you uncomfortable too.

It reminded me of a couple of talents that my aspie senses provide.

1. If someone is sick with a viral infection, I can smell it on them within seconds of meeting them.

2. If someone is about to get sick (ie: they have an infection but it hasn't started to affect them yet), I can see it in their eyes. This is all the more bizarre because I generally don't make good eye contact.

These 4 parts of me said...

Do definitely grasp the concept.
All too well.

Eponine said...

Ah, i just remembered a couple other little odd things.

REcently my dad was in the hospital. I was there when someone came to change his IV catheter. To my surprise, i cuold smell blood when they hit his vein (I couldn't see it, but I could definitely smell it). The odd thing is that I and my coworkers put IV catheters in dogs all the time, and I don't usually smell it go in.

The other thing is that I can hear my phone charger. When it';s plugged into the wall, it make this awful high-pitched screech. It kept me awake many times before I figured out what it was. I never has any other charger before this one do it. Highly annoying, almost warrants getting a new phone. On the other hand, it does save electricity because I have to unplug it all the time ;)

Sara said...

My 7 year old daughter is profoundly deaf and now has bilateral cochlear implants. They are a blessing and a curse at times. We have a tough time figuring out where to set the volume. It seems good and then it's all of a sudden too loud for her and we end up having to go reprogram again. It's good to see the experiences of another deaf person with Asperger's. For so long, all of her social struggles were put off on the fact that she was deaf and deaf kids just have a harder time in those areas, but now it's obviously so much more than that.

the acro said...

i'm the exact opposite when it comes to smell. unless it's really strong, i don't even notice it. milk and cleaning supplies are the only things i remember actually being able to smell for the last few years. thats just the way i was born. i'm pretty sensative to light also. if i'm reading or on the computer and it's too dark or too bright, it bugs me a lot. i spend a lot of time messing with the dimmer switch every time i walk into my room.

C Fernando Maciel said...

I just loooove the smell of books! When I buy a new book - which is my current compulsion - I promptly open it and take a nice and deep smell of it, it's just sooo soothing!

Another think, since you talked about stimming, the hand flapping subject came to my mind. I'm 30 now, so I no longer flap my hands as a child does, but I tend to snap my fingers up and down whenever I get excited about some subject. Is that related?

H.B. said...

It is great to find a blog about Aspergers and Deaf people. I worked with a guy at Salk Institute. His name is Dr. Stephen McCullough. He has Aspergers and chose to work in the field that does not involve people which helps with his being Aspie. He is Deaf, but does not have a lot of facial expressions. Someone said it is related to his being a Aspie. Do you know anything about facial expressions and Aspies.

Anonymous said...

As far as the people not covering their body odor, I'd rather smell their sweat than the deodorants most people use. The smell of deodorant makes me cough, gag, and nearly have to leave an area. If I get within a few feet of someone wearing certain deodorants, I can't handle it. The other issue is women who wear too much perfume.

Anonymous said...

My girlfriend, when she thinks no one is watching, will pick her nose and put her finger in her mouth. I don't really think there is anything on her finger; just a two step action. She will also touch her vagina and smell her fingers while lounging on the couch; many times in one evening with no sexual indication. Are these signs of Aspergers?

Anonymous said...

I don't think it has any direct relation with aspergers (or any other autistic spectrum disorder) although some aspergers people do have these twitches.

I have a lighter version of aspergers, and I do pick my ear and smell it, but it's related to the fact that I grew up having repetitive otitis media infections. So, after all these years, whenever my ear itches too much, I instinctively scratch it and smell it looking for a sign of infection or fungus. I don't actually think of it, but it's something I do and I'm fully aware of it, although nobody has ever complained or said anything about it. I even try to be discreet.