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Autism: Sensory and Movement Differences

Author: Disabled World

Published: 2013-12-18

Synopsis and Key Points:

Published accounts of autism and research studies show a number of references to sensory and movement differences in the areas of perception, emotion, action, cognition and communication.

Main Digest

Perceptual differences, such as differences in vision, hearing, taste, smell, proprioception and synesthesia were all noted in a number of accounts. Tito described his perceptual experiences as a, 'fragmented world perceived through isolated sense organs.' Jim, a person who participated in a study indicated, 'Sometimes I know that something is coming in somewhere, but I can't tell right away what sense it's coming through.'

Accounts of autism also showed challenges with controlling, executing and combining action or movements. Alberto described his challenges with movements and actions, 'Right from the beginning of an action, I was conscious of my inability to access motor planning and I was lost in an unacceptable motor silence.' Charles described his difficulties with movements and actions as well:

'I think my movement disorder is most apparent in the fact that I am unable to respond to someone or something, when my intelligence would tell me to respond in an appropriate manner. For instance, when I should be smiling, sometimes I know that I am not smiling but may be even frowning. This causes me a great deal of pain and makes me look as though I am not comprehending when, in fact, I am crying to respond in an appropriate manner.'

Chart showing information concerning areas affected by perceptual differences in people with autism
Chart showing information concerning areas affected by perceptual differences in people with autism

Other accounts by people with autism described challenges with regulating emotions. Sean described that he was unable to control his emotions and was terrified of his, 'feelings and temperament.' Several accounts described stressful feelings and anxiety as predominant emotions experienced. Therese, another person with autism said, 'It [stress] occurs at any time, but always when I know I have to go somewhere stressful. Sometimes the pain is so bad that my whole body becomes stiff and then I am unable to move.'

Communication challenges were also noted in several accounts by people with autism. Sue, a non-verbal person with autism who independently uses augmentative and alternative communication, described her difficulty with initiating speech. Sue communicated, 'I rarely find the strength in my autistic capabilities to initiate a conversation. There may be times where something pertinent eats away at me until either I find a moment where my body and mind coincide and I am able to go get a device to converse with.'

People with autism in accounts also described differences in cognition.

Temple Grandin outlined her thought process in her book by the name of, 'Thinking in Pictures.' Temple explained that she translates written and spoken words into, 'full-color movies, complete with sound, which run like a VCR tape,' in her head. She refers to this technique as, 'visual thinking.' To create new images, Temple takes parts of, 'video memories.' To recall a memory, she replays different video memories until she finds the information she is looking for. Her videos; however, at times trigger a series of free associations. At times, certain words may also trigger the incorrect association and she might look for an incorrect video - something Temple says leads to misunderstandings.

It is crucial that exploration of autism include sensory and movement differences and involve people with autism first-hand for several reasons:

The majority of disciplines studying autism have investigated it through clinical research, examining significant group differences. The pursuit has brought valuable information although, in addition, it has brought confounding, confusing, and even contradictory results. Researchers are starting to explore the experience of autism through a critical disability perspective through inclusion of the perspectives and experiences of people who have autism.

In one way, the accounts of people with autism diverge dramatically from prevailing clinical literature. Their richness suggests the danger of privileging other forms of research concerning autism as being more deserving of authority, or as being somehow, 'un-contestable.' The forcefulness and consistency of their accounts should tell clinical researchers to question every single assumption about the topic of autism.

The suggestion is not that sensory and movement differences are the cause of autism. Occasional challenges or differences in action, perception, communication, emotion, posture or cognition are parts of our shared human experience. Everyone occasionally forgets why they went into a certain room and has to return to the original context in order to remember. At times we have trouble with a touch or sound under certain circumstances for example.

For people with autism, these differences might have at least the following effects. Sensory and movement differences may be more problematic for people with autism due to the magnitude of differences they experience with duration, intensity, rate, rhythm, frequency and/or timing of movement. Events, experiences and stimuli in the world appear to elicit different responses in some people with autism than the usual patterned responses of people without autism. Areas might also affect people with autism in a dynamic and unusual fashion that is very dependent on internal and external context.

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