Asperger’s/autism is usually characterized by sensory sensitivity–that is to say that we’re more sensitive to (and thus, by necessity, more particular about) our surroundings. It is indeed possible to not be extra-sensitive to one’s surroundings and still meet the diagnostic criteria (I’ve bolded the relevant parts for emphasis):
B – Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities, as manifested by at least two of the following, currently or by history
- Stereotyped or repetitive motor movements, use of objects, or speech (e.g., simple motor stereotypes, lining up toys or flipping objects, echolalia, idiosyncratic phrases).
- Insistence on sameness, inflexible adherence to routines, or ritualized patterns of verbal or nonverbal behavior (e.g., extreme distress at small changes, difficulties with transitions, rigid thinking patterns, greeting rituals, need to take same route or eat same food every day).
- Highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus (e.g., strong attachment to or preoccupation with unusual objects, excessively circumscribed or perseverative interests).
- Hyper- or hyporeactivity to sensory input or unusual interest in sensory aspects of the environment (e.g. apparent indifference to pain/temperature, adverse response to specific sounds or textures, excessive smelling or touching of objects, visual fascination with lights or movement).
So, Asperger’s/autistic people may not have sensory sensitivity. Some of us may actually have less sensitivity than what is considered “normal”. Or there may be no difference at all between our sensitivity to sensory input compared to that of the rest of the population.
In my experience, though, most of us are indeed more sensitive to our environment than the rest of the world at large. For people who are diagnosed to be on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum earlier in life, their sensitivity is more likely to be recognized by the adults (parents, teachers, counselors, caregivers, etc) in their lives, and in those situations, since it’s a “known quantity”, then it can be worked with and worked around.
People who are diagnosed “with” Asperger’s/autism later in life find ourselves in an interesting situation. We often realize (at some point) that certain environmental aspects affect us more, or that we can’t handle certain aspects, or that we have unusually strong preferences for one aspect over another (such as ambient lighting versus fluorescent lighting, for example), but if we’re unaware of our Asperger’s/autism status, our preferences and aversions puzzle the people around us, and they may even puzzle ourselves.
We’re at a significant advantage if we have control/decision-making power over our own environment. If we’re in a position where we’re living in an environment over which we have little influence and we’re at the mercy of decisions made by other people (such as a college dorm, a group house with roommates, or our parents’ house), environmental elements that are incompatible with our nervous systems are likely to be an unknown–but potent–source of discomfort, depression, anxiety, irritability, lack of focus, fatigue, headaches, gastrointestinal/digestive (GI) problems, or some other physical/physiological/emotional issue.
On the other hand, if we’re in a position where we can call the shots for ourselves, we often end up building an environment that is compatible with this sensitivity. We often do this long before we realize we’re Aspergian/autistic; it’s simply a matter of gut instinct and self-awareness (i.e., being aware that you really can’t stand that flickering fluorescent overhead light in the kitchen, even if you don’t know why).
This is one reason why it’s often empowering for adults to find out that they’re on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum; as we go through our journeys of exploration and discovery, we realize “oh! OK, good–it’s not that I’m ‘oversensitive’, ‘anal-retentive’, or ‘being difficult’; it’s that my nervous system actually can’t stand these things!” And if we haven’t built an environment suitable for our nervous systems up until now, then we may begin to do so. If we’ve already built such a comfortable environment, then we know why we did so, and we begin to realize just how important that is for our own mental, emotional, and even physical wellbeing.
Luckily, when I was growing up, my parents preferred the soft carpeted floors, soft-cloth furniture, neutral colors, and ambient lighting, too, so my childhood home environment was very comfortable for–and compatible with–my needs and preferences. As I grew up, I duplicated various aspects of that environment, and added in my own. Although we rent our apartment at this time (as opposed to owning it outright) and thus, decisions were made by others at the time of building (and not made by us), we chose an apartment that suited our needs and desires. Also luckily, my partner’s tastes are very similar–if not nearly identical–to those of my own. So there has been no disagreement about home decor (one person needs dim light, another wants bright light; one person wants hardwood floors, while the other wants carpet, etc).
My own (and my partner’s) preferences are as follows…
I need my light sources to be natural (such as windows to the outside, with a decent view), or incandescent (i.e., no fluorescent, CFL, or older-generation LED light bulbs). I do need plenty of light; an indoor environment in which I have to turn on a light on a sunny day is too dark for me, and it can lead me to depression or irritability. The light, however, can’t flicker or be too “cold”, too “stale”, or weirdly tinged (such as with a pale green/blue/violet/yellow-green hue). Blinding stark white (what the home improvement stores call “daylight”) is overpowering and empty to me, and I think that the store’s “daylight” term is bogus, because that color of light doesn’t have anything in common with natural daylight. Having plenty of natural light helps me enjoy the variety of weather–the sun, the clouds, and the storms. It also helps my body determine nighttime versus daytime, keeping my body regulated in proper day-night cycles for proper sleep and energy levels.
I need my floor to be fully carpeted. Some people despise carpet, and that’s perfectly valid, too. I prefer carpet (medium thickness/plushness) because I can’t stand the echo of sounds off of hard, solid surfaces. Hard surfaces, if at all polished, also tend to reflect light in excess, far beyond what I can handle, especially if it’s sunny outside. Hard floors also hurt my delicate feet, putting too much unnatural pressure on joints. If the hard floor is smooth, I definitely risk slipping and falling. Carpeting, for me, prevents all of that. It provides a nice, soft, muted, plush, home-y environment that I’ve always had, and probably always will.
I need quiet, but not complete silence (except for when I’m in the mood to play music more loudly). In complete silence, the tinnitus in my ears reaches distracting and unbearable levels. Silence really can be deafening. However, loud racket, especially repeated and/or at unpredictable intervals, makes me extremely anxious and irritable. Thus, a rattling fridge, thumping on the floor by the people who live in the apartment above us, or kids screeching very loudly outside, or someone’s bass-boosted stereo, can all be sources of irritation. Thus, I need white noise, like the hum of an air conditioner, the dehumidifiers, etc. A nice, quiet environment that consists of just my partner and me, in a decent community of relatively like-minded neighbors, is perfect.
I tend not to have company. There are a few exceptions to this; having a single friend (or maybe a partnered couple who are good friends) over to our house every so often is not a problem, especially if they’re not strict “neat-freaks” (our house is indeed “lived-in”, and it looks the part!). I also have a good friend who, for the past few years, has come to stay with us for anywhere from 6-12 weeks, under very special circumstances that required their presence here for that long. I have also known this friend for a very long time; we’re very familiar to each other and very compatible, they’re exceptionally respectful and non-intrusive, and I very much trust them. But otherwise, it’s just my partner, myself, and the two cats–and other than the short list of people we’ve invited to our house, we prefer it as it is. Which also brings me to…
…We have no human children or dogs (although I like both, especially dogs), but do have two cats. I like kids perfectly well, but my partner and I decided a long time ago never to have any of our own. The time, effort/energy, and investment aren’t even the main drawbacks – the biggest issues for us were the sensory assaults–the sounds, smells, extra mess/clutter, body fluids (especially during illness; I’ll leave the rest to your imagination without elaboration), the anxiety/worry that children can induce (different types for different stages of life), etc–raising children just didn’t seem to be in our cards for this lifetime. That’s OK with us; we have fun with other peoples’ kids and then after any one of us is spent, we part ways.
I need cleanliness and order; I insist on the former, but the latter is not a reality yet. I’m working on it. At the very least, I need to know where my stuff is, and I need it to be in the same place that my brain last remembers setting it down. Although clutter is still an annoying part of my life, resolving it and giving order to the chaos is a work in progress, an ongoing project. I’m not a hoarder-type person; I do throw away my wrappers, rinse out my dishes, recycle unnecessary papers, and give away clothes, books, and DVDs I’m no longer using (once I deem it “safe” to do so). It feels good to remove the trash and the unnecessary “stuff” – if it’s no longer in my environment, then my brain no longer has to register it, process it, and/or keep track of it.
Collections, however, are organized extremely well. This applies to books, music CDs, music files on the computer, DVDs (both movies and TV series), and the like. My favorite item absolutely must be organized; I couldn’t tolerate it any other way.
Furniture must be soft, comfortable, and made of some type of cloth. Nothing too hard, and definitely nothing slippery or sticky like leather. Nothing too ornate–that tends to be eerie and distracting to me. I tend not to follow styles very closely, and I’m not fond of antiques; timeless is best for me.
Colors must be lighter neutral and natural, with medium neutral trim and furniture. Nothing dark, nothing stark white, except perhaps the window blinds. Blinds can be medium warm wood, too. Walls should be a warm white or potentially a light sandy color. Nothing too bold or vibrant.
Plants are desirable, but I don’t have any at this time. I prefer real ones, but tend to forget to take care of them, so realistic-looking fake plants are fine, too. They lack life (they’re not living things) and thus they also lack the air-cleansing/recycling properties, but at least fake plats will survive my unintentional neglect.
I’m extremely sensitive to smells. Strong artificial or foul smells will actually make me irritable and even at a higher risk of meltdown. I generally can’t tolerate anything chemical or perfume. Synthetic fragrant air fresheners, like Glade plugins, are completely out. I can only tolerate mild and conservative essential oils only or perhaps incense made from natural sources. Trash (and the cat litter box) must be taken out very regularly–preferably daily, and even then, any raw meat packaging (and similar objects) must be rinsed in the sink before being thrown away. The sink itself must be cleaned well; we’ve found that the best ways to do this are either to run a quarter-sliced lemon through the sink disposal, or to scrub the sink regularly with a naturally-scented dish soap and scrub the disposal with the lather from the soap.
I’m exceptionally sensitive to mold and dust mites. Vacuuming and dusting must be done every week. Strangely enough, I can tolerate down pillows (made of feathers).
The apartment/house must have a designated entryway before reaching the living space. It doesn’t need to be big, but it does need to be obviously separate. Doors that open right into the living room bother me. Drafts, whether hot, cold, or damp, blow into the main living area and upset its equilibrium (and thus, my equilibrium).
Fans – sometimes I like them, sometimes I don’t. Regardless, I’ve never liked them to be pointed directly at me (except for my few months of pharmaceutically-induced menopause–then I couldn’t get enough!). Sometimes I crave a bit more moving air, while at other times, I need the air to be still. This often depends on my own body chemistry (such as hormone levels, stress levels, etc), the time of year, the time of day, the indoor temperature, and the indoor (or outdoor) humidity levels.
Temperature must be middle-of-the-road. Humidity levels must be low (I prefer drier air). We almost always run two dehumidifier units, one at each end of the apartment. We’ve situated them outside each bathroom. An indoor humidity level of 50% or less is ideal for me.
I realized practically all of these list-items before discovering that I’m an Aspie. We’ve mostly selected our residence based on how much of this list was already satisfied/in place. In situations when our options were more limited, and we couldn’t get everything we wanted/needed, then we gritted our teeth and stuck it out, making sure to spend as much time out of that residence as possible, and we moved to a more desirable places as soon as we could.
All of us on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum will have different preferences. Maybe some of my list-items will make you cringe, because what placates my system aggravates yours. That’s OK 🙂 The important part is that we all identify what works best for each of us, what our individual needs and preferences are, and do the best we can with what we’ve got to live well.