Like many children on the autism spectrum, my son had heightened sensitivity in many sensory arenas. He could be sensitive to loud noises, and preferred to wear what we called “soft pants” – sweatpants, lounge pants, etc. – over jeans.
Three days before we left on a trip to New York City (pre-diagnosis), he announced he didn’t like crowds. Thank goodness for the miracle that is Central Park – we went there daily to give him a break from the wonderful energy of the city.
After his diagnosis, I started really paying close attention to what impacted him sensorily. I became aware of noise levels and studied the movement of crowds in a way that I had never done before.
I did this for two reasons – one, so that my son would not be made terribly uncomfortable unnecessarily and so that we could support him as soon as we realized his discomfort; and two, so that I could remind him to use his tools to manage sensory overload when we had to be in intense environments.
He loved the Natural History museum in New York (especially the dinosaurs, of course!), and wanted to go back there as well as to other similar places with similar sensory input.
He needed to learn how to manage crowds and noises so that he could do what he wanted to do, and so I focused my senses closely, aligning them with his as much as I could so that I could better understand.
Soon, however, I learned there was an unintended consequence of my intense attention to his sensory issues.
One weekend my husband and I went to a concert. It was a fun event with friends, watching a great band in a small venue. There were a lot of people milling around and dancing. The music was loud enough to make my ears ring for 30 minutes after we left.
The crowd and the noise made me very uncomfortable and did not enjoy the experience.
I used to love concerts and sharing experiences with large groups. I loved crowds in large cities enjoying the energy and dynamism.
But after two years of focusing on what might overload my son, I realized I lost my tolerance for crowds and loud noises.
As I realized that I preferred to limit my sensory input so as to not feel as overwhelmed, it also enabled me to get a small understanding of how restricting sensory issues can be for those who are profoundly impacted by them.
While it made me better able to anticipate, empathize, and understand my son’s sensory needs, I realized that, like my son, I needed to find the middle ground of being aware of what might affect my son while still being able to do the things I enjoy.
The first step was to get a set of ear plugs for me for concerts.