Several studies pose estimates that over 90 percent of people with autism have significant difficulty with sensory processing. While most of this takes the form of extreme sensitivity to sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures, some autistic people actually have atypically low responses to sensory stimuli.
With this, we can see a correlation with the atypical social and emotional responses so often noted in people with autism. Particularly in the case of those who are highly functional, we have come to recognize emotional aloofness or a disconnect from the emotions of others. People on the spectrum often struggle to understand what other people are feeling despite indicators that neurotypical people readily recognize. From this, a stereotype emerges of autistic people as automatons. Ironically, people with autism–often the very ones who appear so disconnected–occasionally respond intensely to emotional stimuli that normative persons would find trivial.
Eugen Bleuler, a Swiss psychiatrist, coined the term autism in the early 20th century to denote a kind of schizophrenia that drove some patients to turn away from painful external realities and withdraw into their own inner minds (autos=self). Similarly, people with autism as clinicians define it today often have an instinct–mainly unconscious, but potentially powerful–to retreat within, to shield their senses and attention from the blare and glare without.
This begins to explain some of the traits we can observe across the entire autistic spectrum: complete disengagement and the inability even to speak on the severe end; repetitive, comforting movements, chants, and rituals in the moderate band; and the familiar routines, atypical speech patterns, social non-sequiturs, and quirky mannerisms we have come to know from those who are highly functioning.
Social dynamics will have it that neurotypical people will in some fashion try to draw autistic people out–with varying degrees of success. Indeed, disabled autistic people receive intensive therapy and attention. Those with mild autism will try consciously to connect with the people around them, continually working to overpower their unconscious tendency to remain protectively withdrawn.
Even the few autistic people who seem unaffected by sensory stimuli may ironically be exhibiting the same self-protective tendency, as something in their neurology enables them to block the very signals that would overwhelm their ability to process them.
And finally, we might begin to understand the complications that arise as autistic people overcome their impulse to remain inert, as they increasingly engage with a world filled with stimulation–sensory, social, and emotional–that their impaired systems are not naturally equipped to handle.
But that is a story for another time.
In the meantime, research continues. And the link between sensory processing dysfunction and autism becomes increasingly clear.
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