People often hear the terms sensory sensitivity or sensory aversion and think that a person experiencing those things just has a dislike for something, when in reality, there’s a strong difference between simply disliking something and having an aversion to it. Sensory sensitivities aren’t about being stubborn, controlling, irrational, impervious to change, or any of the other things people from the outside looking in tend to try to make them out to be. They are a genuine biological response precipitated by atypical sensory processing.
For the purposes of this article, I’m using the term sensory sensitivity to highlight those things which someone may be hypersensitive or have an aversion to. Many of us who experience sensory sensitivities are also hyposensitive to certain environmental factors, objects, etc. Hypersensitivity refers to an over-responsiveness to sensory stimuli, whereas hyposensitivity refers to an under-responsiveness to sensory stimuli.
So you may be wondering, what’s really the difference between sensory sensitivity and having a dislike for something? Well, I strongly dislike tomatoes, but I have a sensory sensitivity to a variety of things, such as seams and tags in clothing, fluorescent lighting, and strongly scented products.
The difference between these is that I could eat tomatoes if I were served them. I wouldn’t remotely enjoy myself, but I could deal with it and move on. Conversely, if I have to spend any amount of time in a space where someone is wearing strong perfume or in a grocery store or building where there’s strong fluorescent lighting, I develop actual physical reactions. I begin feeling disoriented, dizzy, nauseated, and I get headaches. These situations can also sometimes trigger my absence seizures, as my system just feels so overwhelmed. It doesn’t take long before I begin to feel panicky and have to quickly find an exit. The same is true if I have certain clothing seams or tags touching my skin. I just can’t deal.
I imagine it might be difficult for someone who doesn’t experience these sorts of aversions to wrap their mind around them, and if I were to talk about my difficulties with fluorescent lighting, they might assume that I avoid going into grocery stores for the same reasons I avoid having tomatoes on my sandwich. If someone hasn’t experienced sensory sensitivities firsthand, it can be hard for them to trust that they can cause an actual physical reaction. Having a sensory sensitivity is more than preferring one thing over another.
The reaction that the body of someone with a sensory sensitivity produces is one of distress. The brain signals that something isn’t right and that the person is in danger. Our senses are present to serve us to both enjoy things in life and to protect us from harmful situations. A person would probably avoid eating rotten eggs or drinking handfuls of water from a murky, algae-covered lake, because their senses would warn them that those things were unsafe. Our senses naturally act as a defense mechanism against them. Our senses protect us from consuming expired food, scalding ourselves in the bath or on the stove, warn us to move out of the way when a car is coming, and more. Our sensory gating system filters out incoming sensory information and categorizes it as pertinent or impertinent. Once filtered, our brains are able to use that information to decide whether something is helpful or harmful, and we respond appropriately.
It doesn’t always work out this smoothly for those of us with atypical sensory processing. Suddenly, things that would be filtered out as impertinent aren’t filtered out and our sensory systems become bombarded by all of the incoming sensory information at once. This can cause distress and confusion over what is actually a threat and what isn’t, and can send us directly into a fight, flight, or freeze mode.
As such, we might have the same reaction to wearing clothing with large seams or what others might perceive as mildly itchy fabric or tags as we would to being on fire or being scratched by a million tiny needles. The reaction to the input is misplaced, and even though there is no real threat, our brains interpret it as being very real, with all of the accompanying physical feelings.
This is why it doesn’t work to tell someone with atypical sensory processing or sensory sensitivities to just “suck it up” or “get over it.” It might not seem existent to an outsider, but the biological response is genuine for us. This is also why pushing someone with sensory sensitivities to engage in the things we’re sensitive to can lead to meltdowns or shutdowns. As I mentioned, when faced with the things we’re sensory averse to, our brains can easily go into fight, flight, or freeze. Pushing us to face our aversions is only going to result in more distress.