Think of the energy you need to get through your day as coming from one big battery. Each time you struggle through a task without the right supports in place, it drains your battery—sometimes a little bit, sometimes a lot. The good news is that your battery can be recharged by finding ways to make tasks a little bit easier. Take time to figure out which parts of your sensory experience are draining your battery and to find the strategies that work for you. You can use this downloadable worksheet to make notes for each area in this roadmap.
Your sensory system goes beyond the touch, hearing, taste, smell and sight you were probably taught about in childhood. There are three other senses important to know for overall wellness:
- Proprioception: The ability to know where your body is in space
- Interoception: The ability to know how your body feels and understand the physical reactions going on inside
- Vestibular sense: The ability to balance and avoid feeling dizzy all the time
Each person’s sensory system is unique to them. If your system processes sensory stimuli more or less intensely than others, you may find it hard to navigate in the world. Some autistic people describe themselves as sensory seeking or sensory avoiding because of how their bodies process stimuli. They might also avoid things that stimulate one sense but seek things that stimulate a different sense. Sensory seekers may not register a sensory stimulus of average intensity and may need a more intense stimulus for their body to feel comfortable. Sensory avoiders may feel sensory stimuli so intensely that an average stimulus causes discomfort or pain. Both scenarios can cause difficulties, and by understanding your sensory needs, you can bring your system into to a state of balance.
You may already be using sensory supports on a daily basis without considering them as such. Many people, with autism and without autism, use sensory supports without really knowing why they help. This section will look at making deliberate choices and plans to take care of your sensory system. Think about the things you do and things you use to help you maintain an equilibrium, a state where your body feels good and balanced, at the end of the day. This section is closely related to physical health and wellness.
What drains you?
Consider the things you do for your sensory needs on a daily basis (sensory-seeking or sensory-avoiding). Below is a list of examples you might feel, though each person is unique and will experience different sensory challenges:
- If you have to wear a uniform or style of clothing for work, you might find the material itchy or constricting.
- If you have to do errands in a busy store, you may feel the store is too bright, loud, or like there are too many people walking around.
- If you need to walk past an area with a strong fragrance, you may notice yourself getting a headache.
- If you need to use public transportation, you may find yourself more tired that usual after standing up during the ride or sitting near people who may be in your physical "bubble."
- If you are busy and don’t notice hunger or thirst, you may forget to eat or drink water for a long period of time.
What recharges you?
These are tools, strategies and behaviors that make challenging tasks a bit easier. Think about the things you already do as well as some new ideas you could try. For sensory support, you may be looking at tools to help maintain your relaxed state or tools to help you become relaxed.
Think about what sensations make you feel calm and relaxed and what sensations energize you.
- If you have to wear clothing that irritates you, try to wear under layers of a material you enjoy, or see if you can remove any unnecessary tags in the clothing.
- If you have to do errands in a busy store, try to shorten the trip, arrange for curbside pickup, see if you can go at a less busy time or wear headphones if the noise is too much.
- If you need to use public transportation, see if there are seating options you can use, like priority seating for those with disabilities.
- If you are going to be busy during a meal time, you may want to set an alarm to remind you to eat and drink water.
- If you need help to energize your sensory system, explore if a quick morning shower can wake up your system.
- It may be worth exploring if exercise tools like stretching can help you better connect with your body.
- If you have trouble sleeping, it might help to use calming tools such as a weighted blanket or white noise machine.
- If you are feeling overwhelmed, you may try to take a sensory break or use things like a swing, trampoline or weighted vest to stay regulated.
What are the risks?
Sensory issues can be a major drain on your battery in ways you may not realize. These experiences can affect you physically. For example, they might create headaches or fatigue, which make it much harder to manage other areas of your life. It can also make you feel stressed and agitated.
If you have other health conditions, certain sensory stimuli could add to the problem. For example, if you are allergic to a fragrance, being exposed to it may trigger a medical problem.
Also, when your sensory needs aren’t in balance, this can lead to risky, harming or harmful behaviors. We discussed sensory-seeking and sensory-avoiding previously, and these types of behaviors can have their own risk factors.
- Do any of your sensory challenges impact you in a way that could make you unsafe, like hurting yourself, hurting someone else or damaging property?
- If average sensory stimuli are normally “too little” for you, what can happen if you do not sense that something is becoming harmful, like listening to music that is too loud or getting a physical injury?
- If average sensory stimuli are normally ”too much” for you, what can happen if you are overwhelmed by something?
- Are there any sensory supports you need to bring with you to calm your body or maintain that calmness, like a weighted vest, weighted blanket, swing or exercise ball?
- What behaviors, thoughts or body cues signal that you are escalating? (i.e. hand-flapping, nail biting, feeling dysregulated)
What is the plan?
What are some new everyday behaviors, strategies or tools you want to put in place?
- Do you need support to put these ideas into practice?
- Who can help you in this area?
- What do you need to say or do to get that help?
When your battery is running low, seeking help can feel overwhelming. One way to prevent this is being proactive and planning ahead for these times.
- How do you know when you need to ask for help balancing your needs?
- Who can help you in this area?
- How can you ask for help or explain the supports you may need to feel better? It may help to practice these conversations ahead of time.