Autistic Emotions and the Sensory System
By Jess, Holistic Autistic
Emotional regulation is the ability to respond to stimuli with emotions that are acceptable to the situation and to manage emotionally driven behaviors. This is something both inherent, and learned and developed over time. A person’s emotional health is dependent on their ability to emotionally regulate effectively. Many neurotypicals do this unconsciously and only need coping skills when stressed, in trauma, or with co-existing mental or emotional conditions that inhibit emotional regulation. Autistic people, however, have different processing systems than neurotypicals and cannot emotionally process the same way. I believe it is because we live in an environment that is conducive to neurotypicals’ emotions more than ours. This is why autistics need coping skills to accommodate our different emotional and sensory systems.
There are many ways useful to autistics to self-regulate when some emotions, good or bad, become too big.
The ways autistics’ emotions are connected to their sensory systems are complex and interlinked in various ways. Therefore, emotional regulation is often achieved through the senses. Stimming is the most common way autistics regulate. Not only is it self-soothing but concentrating on the output of physical energy blocks the input of emotional energy in stressful situations. In trauma, it serves as a distraction until we have calmed; in inconvenience, it serves as a filter to balance strong emotions. However, it can become dangerous if the stim becomes harmful to the autistic or others. One of the best ways to stim are “stim toys” that companies such as Happy Hands Toys provide. I recently received their hoodie chews, silicone tubes that can be put through hoodie strings to chew on, which serve as an alternative to biting my nails (which becomes painful).
To stim is readjusting one’s sensory system in the same way as taking a deep breath.
Which brings us to the next option to emotionally regulate: deep breathing techniques. Often as our thoughts race, our breath will also. Taking the time to concentrate on breathing at slower intervals, filling the stomach instead of the small chest cavity, takes us out of fight-flight mode. It gives more oxygen to the brain and evens the pace of your heartbeat. As the body’s nervous system is calmed and slowed from taking in sensory input, we will begin to feel much more relaxed, and able to process what is happening easier. Nobody can think as clearly in stressful situations as they would after they’ve calmed.
When I notice my breathing rate is faster than normal, it makes me aware that I may be stressed and not immediately recognize it.
Because autistics are occasionally unable to identify which emotions we are feeling, or even that we are feeling them at all, our bodies give us signs that something is off. Zoning out is another indicator to us that we are feeling stressed. It is essentially taking a sensory break from the overload of input one’s brain is receiving. Zoning out can look like becoming still or moving repetitively, our eyes may become unfocused or staring in one direction, not speaking, ignoring sounds, and often seeming to be unaware of the world around us. Sometimes it appears as though we have been daydreaming and snap out of it like waking up. While characteristic of dissociative disorders, or simply seeming as though we are distracted, in autistics it is simply our brains taking a break from taking in stimuli in order to “reset” our system.
The proverbial “reset button” applies to autistics in other ways too. What we call sensory play is a designated reset time to balance out the percentage of time we deal with stress, to renew our energy. It can include playing with stim toys or sensory items such as kinetic sand, listening to music, drawing, dancing, being given a massage– whatever addresses our needs. This time is different for each autistic to engage their sensory profiles. A sensory profile addresses your patterns of sensory processing, and the autistic sensory system needs to be accommodated to intentionally and methodically. Autistic children are often scheduled so they adhere to a routine with times allotted to learning and sensory play; as adults, we still need to do this for ourselves. I integrated this into my everyday life by laying a soft rug down in a corner of my room with pillows and candles, where I sit and play with my Happy Hands Toys, drink tea, and relax after a long day.
An hour each evening of this sensory time is the most helpful coping method I have to bring down anxiety and take time for myself.
However, all coping methods have a limit to which they are effective. When this limit is reached, autistic people need to either remove or change the environmental triggers that are affecting their emotional health or remove themselves from the situation. Trying to “just get through things” is accepted too much in our society as the answer to stress; when you reach an emotional or mental limit, the benefits of a situation do not outweigh the detriments to your mental or emotional wellbeing. In order to “just get through things” people need to suppress their emotions in order to act on what they are trying to accomplish. While this is especially damaging to autistics who already live in a world not accommodating their needs, it is unhealthy for neurotypical people because it causes overload in other ways.
Everyone, autistic or not, needs to habitually process emotions so things don’t build up.
When we get used to doing this, it is easier to recognize and set boundaries, work to accommodate to our strengths, and develop a lifestyle that will target our weaknesses as little as possible. While life is busy and jobs are stressful and relationships are demanding, it’s important to take care of your emotional health to make it worth living the life and working the job and developing the relationships. Autistic people are strongly in touch with our emotions. Being so emotionally driven can be difficult, but to me, it is the most beautiful part of being autistic.
Holistic Autistic is an #ActuallyAutistic who is passionate about connecting the autistic community and advocating for neurodiversity. Subcribe to Holistic Autistic YouTube channel and follow her @holisticautistic on Instagram.
Happy Hands Toys is a family-run, autism-friendly business offering fidgets and sensory toys that are “fun, fashionable and functional” at a fair price. All links to stim toy examples in this article are from Happy Hands Toys website.
Find more articles written by the Happy Hands Toys’ contributors:
Our website at Geek Club Books is a platform for autistic voices, positive autism advocacy and education, and sharing autism resources we think you’ll want to know about. In addition to our autistic-themed comic, here are topics we cover and questions we explore: