Today at work I made a joke about how my annoyance with a subtle chemical smell, which turned out to be the wafting paint fumes from a graffiti artist in the nearest alley, kind of made me a superhero. For a moment, I indulged in a fantasy where bringing this toxic airborne compound to my boss’ attention somehow saved us all a few brain cells. Although, to be honest, I’m pretty sure that the only thing that happened was that I made myself annoying.
This is not the first time I’ve been difficult at work. After we had fluorescent lights installed, I was so irritated by them that I had them uninstalled above my desk and obscured by brown paper directly across from me. It was either that or wear sunglasses at work, which I actually did for a few days.
Then there was the time I asked everyone to please not play music when I was around. It was distracting, irritating. I couldn’t think; it made me angry. Now, I like music, in the right context. In the right context, I love it. But it really has to be in the right context.
I’ve known for a long time that I’m hypersensitive to just about everything: sunlight, especially flickering sunlight, hurts my eyes and ultimately tends to give me migraines. I don’t like watching TV in a dark room; the contrast is too stark. I’ve hated soda since I was a kid due to the fact that it was too sweet, too fake and the bubbles felt bizarre. The tags in my clothes can make me extremely uncomfortable. I hate having certain kinds of fabric touch my skin, specifically cheap synthetic fleece. It feels like fuzzy plastic to me. Also, wearing thick mascara feels weird on my eyelashes. If there’s a siren next to me, I typically have to put my fingers in my ears. Loud noises can make me want to punch things, so I tend to wear earplugs on airplanes, and have even contemplated taking them to concerts. Not that earplugs help a ton; I can hear pretty well through them. It’s not just loud noises, either. High-frequency noise, like the almost imperceptible buzz from old televisions, put me on edge as well. But touch is probably one of the worst — I am extremely ticklish, to the point that unexpected light touch of just about any kind can be profoundly uncomfortable.
None of these stimulations is like pain, exactly. It doesn’t match with the definition of what I know to be painful. But mentally, it feels similar. It feels like insect bites on some internal skin I have, like fingernails against a blackboard, like a personal insult against me.
Due to all of this, I’ve actually wondered if I have autism, since hypersensitivity to environmental stimuli is often comorbid with it. But nothing else fit; other than the fact that I’m hypersensitive, I’m pretty normal. So it wasn’t that I was autistic. It was like I was autistic. At one point several months ago, my boyfriend was trying to lightly rub my arm or something, and I kept telling him to stop because it tickled. Finally said, in exasperation, “just pretend I’m autistic.” It was the closest explanation I could come up with.
Today, for the first time ever, I started to follow the rabbit trail of Google down the path of “sensory overload.” As it turns out, there are lots of non-autistic people like me with varying degrees of sensitivity to an entire spectrum of stimulation. It appears, however, that not a lot of scholarly research has been done on the topic, for the rather obvious reason that it’s hard to pin down what’s normal and what isn’t when, for example, fully 40% of children are annoyed with the tags in their clothing. Scientifically or not, I fit pretty well into the description of sensory defensiveness, which makes me feel like I’m not actually crazy or deliberately annoying. Sensory defensiveness is supposedly — and again, this isn’t completely scientific — a subset of sensory processing disorder. David Eagleman, who has attempted to study the disorder, says he believes it is due to different wiring in the brain, “where instead of some sense connecting to their color area, it’s connecting to an area involving pain or aversion or nausea.” Makes sense to me.
So what should people with this type of hypersensitivity do, exactly? Well, first of all, I think it’s kind of nice to be able to tell yourself, “this is how I am and it doesn’t make me crazy. It might even be a good thing in some ways.” But we’ll get to that later. Most people with hypersensitivity tend to naturally do things, or avoid things, to help them cope with it. If you don’t like loud noise, you can often avoid it. You can also do specific sensory things that you find calming to balance out sensory overload — which is often exercise, getting somewhere calm and quiet, or applying physical pressure to yourself. I will often rake my fingernails against my scalp, which is somehow very soothing, and has become a lot easier since I cut my hair short. It’s very strange, but firm pressure feels totally different to me than light pressure.
If you’re dealing with a hypersensitive friend, spouse or child, you can do things like let them know that there’s going to be a loud noise coming up, or that you’re behind them and you’re going to touch them. You can even allow them to initiate some of this; they often deal better with sensory input when they feel like they can control it. Above all, listen to what they like and don’t like, and try to be understanding. There are sensory things you can do with your kids that may help, such as skin brushing and joint compression.
And try to see the upside. As a hypersensitive person, I will probably have decent hearing into old age. My risk of skin cancer is lowered due to my avoidance of sunlight. My risk of other types of cancer, and brain damage, is lowered due to the fact that I can’t stand the smell of chemicals. Because I’m hypersensitive to what I consume, and because I relax with certain forms of exercise, I stay fairly healthy by doing exactly what I want. Because I prefer calm environments, I tend to spend time in reflection and study, which has been true throughout my lifetime.
I may not actually be a superhero, but I’m a decent kind of mutant. With any luck, I will pass these genetics on to any children I have, and they will be little health-freak scholars by their very nature.