Before defining emotional sensitivities, we have to distinguish between the terms feeling and emotion Opens in new window.

Are emotions and feelings the same thing or are they different phenomena? There is no consensus here and different researchers define both feelings and emotions differently. For example, Damasio’s definition of feelings corresponds to what others define as emotions and vice versa.

Emotions start as feelings and they are closely connected to sensory perception as they start as sensory feelings.

Jawer (2009, p.19) defines feelings as ‘a subset of the sensory perceptions’, especially ‘those most closely associated with the body and its processing of sensory stmuli’, including the ones that are usually distant senses, such as hearing, for example.

Jawer argues that hearing should be considered as a feeling sense because the sound is literally a vibration and that is why it is felt either on the ear-drums or even on our skin (for instance, the sounds produced by a bass guitar). Following this logic, it is possible to add vision to the list of ‘feelings’ because it is possible to ‘touch’ with your eyes (‘distant touching’; Bogdashina 2004).

Some autistic individuals can actually feel (with actual tactile experience on their skin) if they are looked at directly: ‘It can feel creepy to be searched with the eyes’ (O’Neil 1999, p.26).

Emotional hypersensitivity

As most autistic individuals’ senses work in hyper, and feelings start as sensations (either conscious or unconscious), it is no wonder that many people with ASD are emotionally hypersensitive.

Wendy Lawson describes how sensory stimuli can evoke very powerful emotion in her:

I find color simply fascinating and it stirs all sorts of feelings in me. The stronger and brighter the color, the more stirred up I become. My favorite colors are rich in emerald green, royal blue, purple, turquoise and all the in-between shades of these colors. (Lawson 1998, p.3)

She is surprised that other people do not bother to enjoy the bright colors around them: the color of the door they are about to open, or a sign across their path. Colors and fragrance are so vibrant to Wendy’s senses that she can feel them.

To illustrate the point she gives an example of the emotion evoked by freshly fallen snow:

I remember one particular morning, when I was coming home after a night shift at the hospital.. Fresh snow had fallen during the night and my footprints were the first ones to make any impression on the frozen footpath. I stopped, afraid to move for fear of disturbing perfection in front of me (Lawson 1998, p.3).

Such experiences can be termed as emotional hypersensitivity and accounted for by the intense world syndrome (Markarm et al. 2007) which indicates that the amygdala Opens in new window and related emotional areas of the brains of autistic individuals are affected with hyper-reactivity leading to hyper-perception, hyper-attention and hyper-memory.

All things are heightened for me, so what a regular person would be tickled with pleasure over, I’ll be totally ecstatic. Likewise, someone else’s small irritation will turn into a catastrophe for me, like 100 nails screeching a blackboard (to use a commonly understood simile) (O’Neill 2000).

My entire nervous system is intensely sensitive such that my emotions and senses ‘vibrate’ at a frequency different than most. For instance, I was unusually sensitive as a child — extremely emotional.

The melancholy lyrics to a song like ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ or virtually anything by Peter, Paul and Mary could cause me to become inconsolable. This was, perhaps, most memorably defined by an emancipating childhood incident.

Raised in the Episcopal church, I was once removed from my pew, at age six, because I could not control my weeping. Unbeknownst to anyone, I had been staring at a terrible, glorious stained-glass window of the crucifixion and grieving for the pain Christ must endured.

The arresting mosaic of that forlorn image etched itself indelibly upon me. And yet at some point, I became emotionally and empathically detached. (Stillman 2006, pp.3–4)

If many autistic individuals are emotionally hypersensitive, how can we explain their (alleged) lack of empathy Opens in new window ? It has been noticed that sensory and emotional sensitivities are often associated with certain somatic symptoms.

Psychologist Ian Wickramasekera (1998) suggests that physical sensitivity can be transmuted into such physical symptoms as asthma, allergy, chronic pain, fatigue, and so on. Wickramasekera explains that psychological distress leads to somatisation (physical illness):

when the person is being… made sick by distressing secret perceptions, memories, or moods that [he or she] blocks from consciousness (p.83).

Sharon Heller (2002, p.146) also confirms that highly sensitive individuals (she calls them sensory defensive) often suffer from such conditions as chronic fatigue, aching muscles, sleep difficulties, headaches, allergies, irritable bowel syndrome, ulcers and gastrointestinal problems, skin disorders and other problems. She explains that environmental stimuli that would be unnoticed by the majority often causes a chronic stress response in these individuals, and ‘eventually the immune system is depleted and the body succumbs and breaks down.’

These symptoms have been reported by persons with ASD (who experience sensory and emotional hypersensitivity), for example:

All the time I was growing up, I suffered from an almost constant shudder down my spine… I became slightly used to it, but it was a constant torture, most noticeable when it changed in intensity… It was like cold steel down my spine. It was hard and fluid at the same time, with metallic fingers lightly drumming and tickling on the outside… It was like a sound of screeching chalk against a blackboard turned into a silent concentration of feeling, then placed at the back of my neck… From there, so metallic, the feeling rang in my ears, radiated into my arms, clipped itself firmly into my elbows, but never came to an end (Gerland 1997, pp.56–57).

I had been on painkillers for rheumatism… The pains…had become excruciating, and I would slam myself side-on into the walls and knock my head against them in an effort to ease pain…

Intolerance to different foods can cause allergic reaction in different parts of the body. In my case my skin was not the ‘target organ’ for my particular allergic reactions. It was … discovered I was suffering from extreme multiple allergies… (Williams 1996n, pp.60, 140).

    The data for this work have resourced from the manual:
  1. Sensory Perceptual Issues in Autism and Asperger Syndrome: Different Sensory ... By Olga Bogdashina