Sensory Inputs. It’s a universal phenomenon that can be a positive influence on many people’s lives. Autistic people are among them. We have different sensory needs than the average population. Some sensory inputs can be displeasing and overwhelming to us. Others can help calm us down. When Autistic people seek out sensory calmness they do something called stimming. A stim is when an Autistic person actively seeks out a sensory reaction. This could involve hand-flapping, making noise, or shaking a leg.
What may be pleasant to one Autistic person might be uncomfortable to another. So let’s talk about how a sensory pleasure could manifest itself. I have talked about water in the past. Now, let’s take some advice from Queen and go under pressure.
Pressure seems like a weird input to think about, yet it is helpful for me and many other Autistic people. It’s one of the most common Autistic sensory pleasures. When I talk about pressure, I am referring to a force being pressed upon me. I don’t mean tightness, which for me and many other Autistic people can be uncomfortable. For example, it is very uncomfortable for me to wear tight clothing, especially jeans of which I have no pairs. It’s difficult to describe why I enjoy the sensory input of pressure so much; however, there are reasons why pressure can be helpful and calming for me compared to other sensory inputs.
First, pressure tends to be a very strong sensory input. It can be difficult to get similar sensory input from a rough surface such as sandpaper. Another aspect is that it is easy to ‘surround’ yourself with pressure. For example, it is logistically challenging to surround yourself with warm water, especially because taking a lot of baths can eat up your water bill and can be time-consuming to set up. Also, compared to many other sensory needs, pressure is more accessible. Pressure does not just come in one format, it can come in different ways. Some stims such as pressure are passive instead of active. What do I mean by this? For an active stim such as stroking sandpaper, I have to constantly stroke it. Meanwhile, passive stims such as pressure don’t need you to constantly apply the stim, once and done!
My favorite way to receive pressure is a weighted blanket. I have 30 pounds of weighted blankets on my bed - and yes, blankets, I have two. Let me tell you the story of how I got here. When I was younger I would constantly ask for more blankets. This was not because I was cold but because I wanted pressure on me when I was trying to fall asleep. At the time, I didn’t know how to express that need so I didn’t make much progress in getting better sleep. At some point, I discovered the world of weighted blankets. My mom bought me my first one, which is much lighter compared to my second. I immediately noticed a change in my sleeping habits. The blanket relaxed my muscles and provided me with a constant source of stimulation. This made it easier for me to fall asleep. In addition, I woke up less during the night and when I just wanted to relax in bed I was able to recharge easier. When I got my second weighted blanket, which was heavier, I saw these effects multiply. This blanket was also self-cooling. One of the most difficult sensory inputs for me is heat (specifically the sweating from heat) so a self-cooling blanket was perfect. I would overheat when I had ten blankets to exude pressure on me; when I was unblanketed I had no pressure on me. With the self-cooling blanket, I was able to solve my sleeping sensory needs.
There are other ways that I use pressure in my life. I use pressure on the bus by placing my backpack on my lap. This helps me read (see previous blog; ‘approaching challenges: long bus ride’). I also like to press my legs against the legs of my desk or against the seat on my bus, which is why I usually sit in the front. Apart from the calming effect that stims (like pressure) can give me, these stims can also be helpful in the long run; it takes more energy for me to operate and concentrate if I don’t stim. Therefore, stims such as pressure can allow me to concentrate better and help me consistently stay “charged”.
I also noticed how pressure and sensory needs played an interesting role in my most recent experience at Disney. Previously, I did not want to go on roller coasters. This time I tried a few and found that I loved the sharp turns on rides. Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and Seven Dwarfs Mine Train offered me an opportunity to have a rush of adrenaline and pressure. However, I enjoyed Space Mountain less. The weightlessness of the drops in that ride were an uncomfortable sensory input, and I did not like being in the dark because I crave a sense of predictability and a knowledge of what awaits me.
My exploration of this interesting sensory input will continue for years to come. The takeaway of this article is not for my neurotypical allies, it is for my fellow Autistics and other sensory cravers. Discover what works for you. Find ways in which you can integrate these stimuli into your everyday life. And have fun with it! Finding effective ways to stim is one of the most important and fun parts of being an Autistic person. While we may face certain challenges, we are able to explore our senses in great ways.
For my neurotypical friends, explore your senses. You might not relate to the experiences that I and my Autistic friends may have but exploring your sensory and stimulation needs might result in you learning something that surprises you.