I am a sensory seeker and always have been. As a small child I was never without my comfort blanket, as I got older I was never without my scraps of “the right sort” of fabric, which I would rub between forefinger and thumb.
The texture would have to be “right” and the “rightness” has changed with the ageing of my nerve endings; from muslin to cotton to tissues to crepe paper. I have felt a million textures, always seeking perfection, all different, some better, some worse.
I have stocked up on cheap tissues and worn them to dust between my fingertips. I have hidden away in toilets to indulge my habit without being judged.
I am a sensory addict. I do it most when stressed, that’s when it becomes a need. It helps me think, it soothes an overload, it softens something deep within, at the back of my head.
As a child I would panic without my scrap of fabric. What would start out as my stolen father’s cotton handkerchiefs, would soon be worn away to nothing. I remember making the school bus wait, because I had forgotten something important, and crawling around under the tables in the strangely empty classroom, panicked and desperate not to be without my sensory peace for the ten minute drive home.
I remember the terror of not having something to feel. How would I get through the next moments of life without it? It was as desperate a need as air.
Children never minded me stimming. If they commented at all, it was only out of curiosity, and whatever I responded with was met with an, “Oh right” and on to the next adventure.
As I got older I was warned by adults that people would pick on me, would bully me, if they saw me doing it. So I kept it in a pocket, did it under the table, or waited to be shameful and alone.
Adults aren’t as good at coping with difference, as children are.
A couple of my children are sensory seekers. One of them loves to rub the ears of her toy dog against her face. This is how she makes the world a pleasant, sensory place.
We were sat at the table one day, and she thoughtfully said, “Maybe we should cut his head off.”
I laughed and asked why.
“Because I don’t need his body, and he’s heavy, and maybe I could keep him around longer.”
Some people might be appalled at that suggestion. This was the toy that she had loved since she was a baby. This was the toy who had lain beside her when she was ill, and who she had held when she had nightmares. This was her companion and friend.
Except, it isn’t. That’s not true. This is a fabric representation of an animal, not an animal. This is a sensory toy, that she has a deep bond to; not because it represents a dog, but because it changes the way she feels when she touches it.
I agreed that, that sounded like a sensible thing to do, but asked her why she thought not doing it would mean she couldn’t carry on.
“I’m getting older now. It’s babyish to still be playing with his ears.”
I sighed and told her that her toy was hers, hers alone. If she wanted to cut the ears off and keep them in her pocket, she could. If she wanted to keep it whole and beside her for as long as she likes, then she can. She has other sensory items for use at school. Her dog is a huge part of her safe space.
I asked her if she only wanted to cut his head off because of what other people might think.
“Yes. I might lose his ears if they weren’t attached. He’s easier to keep track of when he’s whole.”
I was glad she came to that conclusion. She is a pragmatist, like her mother. She sees the use, and not the judgement, but she knew that to fit in this world, sometimes we are asked to bend ourselves.
If you are autistic you will be expected to bend yourself a lot. There are ways that I am willing to do that, I will choose to filter my “facts” and “truths” by what may hurt people (even when I mean them as statements and have no judgement attached). I will do smalltalk when I have the energy to spare because it puts people at their ease. I will do my utmost to communicate in the ways of the majority, when energy allows.
But I will not, ever, give up my right to sensory seeking. It is a part of who I am. It is a need. It is how I make harsh-sensory spaces bearable, and how I clear my mind for thinking. It is not babyish. I am not stuck in some Freudian aural stage.
When overwhelmed by negative sensory stimulus, which I often am, I use positive sensory information to combat it.
I am liberated enough to know my mind and to respect my needs, just as I do my utmost to respect other people’s too. I never had a doggy, but if I had I would have snipped its ears off and skinned it, because its tactile value is real, and its anthropomorphic value is nothing to me.
Does that sound psychopathic? It’s not. I would never hurt an animal. I was the child who spent hours lugging frogspawn from a puddle I knew would dry out, to the pond. Hours of buckets and aching arms to save the next generation.
An image is not the thing, but if you value the image of the thing, I will respect your value as real and important to you. I don’t have to understand it, or feel it, to respect it. Just as you should respect what I value too.
Being in the minority, I have learned that sometimes I need to believe what other people find important, regardless of how I feel about it. It’s not a lesson the majority have to face as often, but it’s an important one. We are all different, and we are all experts in ourselves. To learn about people, you have to listen first and foremost.