Papercut and colored pencil art by Sheryl Aronson X 5

Friday, June 7, 2013

Sensory Processing and Pain

In my post last week, I did some comparing and contrasting of sensory defensiveness in people with Fibromyalgia and people on the Autism spectrum.To sum it up, the main similarities are the tendency toward over-sensitivity to light, sound, and touch. The main difference is that those of us with Fibromyalgia acquired it after our neural pathways matured, and our sensory systems had time to organize. We learned how to respond to things, based on experience and social norms, so when we got Fibro, we were able to adapt to it with varying degrees of success..People on the Autism spectrum, on the other hand, grow up with their disorder, and must learn to live in a society that does not share or comprehend their over-sensitivities.They may not be able to communicate their discomfort, or they may not realize that others experience the world differently.
Keep in mind that this is very much an over-simplification of the situation. Everyone is different, not all people on the Autism spectrum have sensory defensiveness, and not all people with sensory defensiveness have Autism. In fact, there is a distinct disorder known as 'sensory processing disorder'.
One of the areas of sensory study that I find most fascinating is 'habituation'. It is related to the word 'habit'. When something is a habit, it is automatic, we don't even think about it. Habituation is similar. When our body is bombarded by the same sensory input over and over, our body stops responding to it, and just ignores it.This is why you don't constantly feel your clothes, or why people who live near the train tracks don't hear the train after awhile.
Imagine what life would be like if we did not have this shut-off valve in our system? We would be constantly bombarded from all directions with sounds, smells, sights, we would feel out clothing, the air, etc. It would be overwhelming. It is believed that this is what life is like for some people with Autism.They are so overwhelmed that they shut down, and don't respond, because they don't know what, of all the input,  to respond to.
People with chronic pain can have a version of this, where the pain signals continue bombarding, and the habituation mechanism fails to kick in to shut off awareness. This may be due to the intensity of the pain signal, or in the case of Fibro, the pain signal mechanism itself is faulty.
Stay tuned: my next post will be on some things you can do when your pain signal won't shut off.      

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