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The Human Sensorium

It was not until very recently that autism started to become more than just sound and text-bites on the news. Real coverage on the subject began to surface around 2006 and throughout 2007; but despite the coverage, there is still a large gap between typical populations and people with autism. Part of this may simply stem from public tendency to disassociate itself with all disabilities. But autism may not let us off the hook quite so easily. The more we learn about autism, the more we begin to realize that many of its attributes bring back into question our understanding about the human body and behavior for typical and autistic populations alike.

Are those with autism really that different than the rest of us? And if so, to what degree?

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Neil Sanders is on the Autism Spectrum. More often than not, he sits at a table by himself, with his headphones on. There is a smirk on his face as he listens to his favorite radio programming. His eyes, though open, seem to be looking inward. The world and all the people around him are of no consequence right now. Because Neil has autism, a considerable amount of study is invested to understand why someone like Neil can isolate himself without any expressed need for human contact. Most studies attribute his being lost in the broadcast world, headphones and all, to a need for sensory input – in this case, audio. Another theory supplements this by suggesting that Neil’s brain cannot process competing sensory information – audio and visual being the biggest competitors. One of them has to win. In Neil’s case, audio is the victor. He helps his brain modulate sensory input by increasing the emphasis on one and not the other.

Or maybe Neil just loves radio.

Either way, none of these theories are too far removed from the typical behavior of, well, you. Picture yourself watching television, and in the next room is a particularly loud conversation between two other people. What do you do? You ask them to pipe down or leave the room. Or, if you are like Neil, you turn up the volume to block out competing noise. In most cases the brain will do this filtering for you. One of the most remarkable qualities of the human brain is its ability to prioritize all that sensory clutter – which is bombarding you even as you read this article. You probably are not paying attention to any of the things in your periphery. And if you are, then you are not paying attention to this article. That is how the brain works.

One of the most remarkable qualities of the human brain is its ability to prioritize all that sensory clutter. This is not always the case with Autism.

Programs such as Creative Movements assist with sensory integration.

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But sometimes the problem is not too much sensory information. Sometimes the problem is too little. Again, this is not a quality exclusive to autism, though it is more pronounced. When the headphones come off, it does not take long before Neil is pacing the room with his arms swinging back and forth. His shoulders never seem to tire from the heavy movements. What is Neil doing? Well, it is something that many of us do. A person on the edge of boredom will often bob his leg up and down rapidly, usually without realizing he is doing it. The circular twiddling of the thumbs and tapping our fingers on the counter are common examples of sensory-seeking. It is not a coincidence that we most often do these things when we are bored. The brain needs a little more than what it is currently getting. For Neil it is the same, only for him it is necessarily habitual.

The 17th Century philosopher RenĂ© Descartes was one of the most prominent thinkers who tried to make sense of the human mind and its symbiotic-sensory relationship with the human body. One of his earlier illustrations suggested that receptors in the skin processed information and sent it to the brain. He was almost correct. We now know that the signals are sent to the brain to be processed and sent back to the body, which is how the sensation of touch works. Neil’s body is sensing information normally, but it is being processed in his brain abnormally. Autism is unwittingly reminding us just how much the mind is responsible for how we perceive reality.

Autism faces the same challenge as all others with unique abilities, which is breaking through the barrier of public indifference. Perhaps we can minimize the indifference by understanding just how much the perceived differences are a matter of perspective. After all, in the case of autism, the difference truly is all in your head.

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