Sensory sensitivity in autistic persons is often higher than “normal”/average degree of being sensitive to everyday sensations and stimuli. The common sensory forms of hypersensitivities include: sensitivity to noise (e.g. the buzz of crowded places), sensitivity to touch (e.g. dislike of being touched, sensitivity to the feel of particular clothing), and sensitivity to smell and taste (e.g. taste, smell, and color food).

Sensory sensitivities Opens in new window have been identified and reported from the very beginning of official descriptions of autism (Aperger 1944; Kanner 1943). In 1949, based on their own clinical observations, Bergman and Escalona suggested that autistic children start life with a higher degree of sensory sensitivity than normally developing children.

The researchers observed children as young as three months old and reported in their article ‘Unusual sensitivities in very young children’ that these children ‘were sensitive in both meanings of the word: easily hurt, and easily stimulated… Variations in sensory impression that made no difference to the average child made a great difference to these children’ (p.333).

Sensory hypersensitivities Opens in new window are quite common in autism. Traditionally, we consider either five or seven senses (vision, hearing, tactility, olfaction, gestation, proprioception, vestibular). Any of these senses (or a combination the senses) can be hypersensitive.

  • Hypervision (seeing ‘invisible’) means that one can see more than other people, that is, one’s vision is too acute. For example:

    Visual sensitivity to fluorescent lights can make them appear like strobe lights to a person with autism… [The eyes of people with this type of sensitivity] vibrate in synchrony with 60 Hz. Cycling of fluorescent lighting. (Shore n.d.)

    [Some autistic individuals can see] ‘stars’ and ‘spots’ (charged energy particles that fill the air and that most people tune out as irrelevant background information or do not have sensitive enough vision to see). (Williams 1999c, p.186)
  • Hyperhearing (hearing ‘inaudible’) means one is able to hear some frequencies that only some animals hear. For example:

    There was an increase in sound sensitivity on some frequencies … [and it was] so odd that I did not recognize it because I felt it as vibrations rather than noise. (Blackman 2001, p.2000)
  • Hypertactility results in experiencing even light touch as painful. For example:

    There are certain things I touch that hurt my hands… [Even] the air brushing past my hands is a source of pain. (McKean 1999)
  • Hyperproprioception is reflected in odd body posture, difficulty manipulating small objects, and so on, and vestibular hypersensitivity brings a very low tolerance for any activity that involves movement or quick change in the position of the body.
  • Hypersmell: some autistic individuals have olfactory sensitivities comparable to canines, and they can be felt as allergies to certain smells. For example:

    My allergic reaction to her perfume made the inside of my nose feel like it had been walled up with clay up to my eyebrows. Her perfume burned my lungs; my mouth tasted like I had eaten a bunch of sickly smelling flowers. (Williams 1999a, p.57)
  • Hypertaste: for some, almost all types of food taste too sharp, or they cannot tolerate the texture or the sound of the food in their mouth:

    Many children with autism are finicky and will eat only certain foods… I hated anything that was slimy, like Jell-O or undercooked egg whites. (Grandin 2006, p.71)

For the purpose of our investigation it is appropriate to add more senses. Guy Murchie (1978) considers 32 senses, which he divides into five categories.

  1. The radiation senses

Among the traditionally identified senses, vision Opens in new window is in this category, but it also includes senses of radiation, electricity, magnetism and temperature.

A sensitivity to radiation (other than visible light) is the ability to see radiation, for instance, under experimental conditions.

During spaceflight it is possible to actually see cosmic rays as points or streaks of light (Gerald 1972).

Though most humans are unable to consciously perceive most forms of magnetic radiation because the frequencies are beyond those of visible light, [it is possible] at least theoretically… to register electromagnetic radiation that lies outside of the normal range’ (Jawer 2009, p.170).

Sensitivities to magnetism and electricity are well researched in some animals.

There have been reported cases of individuals who can hear radar as buzzes and hisses (Frey and Messenger 1973), and someone who receives radio broadcasts through his teeth (Murchie 1978). It also seems that for some autistic individuals sensitivity to electricity can be an everyday experience.

  1. The feeling senses

Apart from hearing, this category includes awareness of pressure, sense of weight, sense of balance, awareness of one’s proximity to someone or something in their surroundings, and a broad sense of what Murchie calls feel — particular touch on the skin… awareness of intra- and intermuscular motion [proprioception], tickling, vibration…cognition of heart beat, blood circulation, breathing, etc. (Murchie 1978, p.1979).

These feeling senses can also include what is often called sixth sense, or gut feeling; sensing (the term suggested by Donna Williams 1998); and the ability to predict human behavior, relying on ‘pattern-recognition skills which occur intuitively’ (Schoonmaker 2008).

  1. The chemical senses

These include traditional smell and taste, and appetite, thirst and humidity.

  1. The mental senses

These include pain, sense of danger, sexuality, relaxation and sleep, a sense of humor or playfulness, time sense, territorial sense, an aesthetic sense (appreciation of the arts, etc.) and intuition.

Many autistic individuals have a highly developed aesthetic sense, for example:

the city lights and reflections playing upon the river…statutes, beautiful parks, old wooden cathedrals, and marble sculptures, paintings by Renoir and scenes by Monet, captured me and brought home the beauty of ‘the world.’ … The frosted trees and icy fields… the beauty moved me so deeply I found myself crying. (Williams 1999c, p.157)

  1. The spiritual senses

These include conscience, the capacity to sacrifice, the ability to experience ecstasy, religious bliss, feeling in unity with the cosmos.

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