Creating a Sensory Diet: Lessons from Autism

After my recent post about similarities between ASD and BPD (so many acronyms), I’ve started to wonder about the usefulness of making these comparisons. Sure, it’s interesting to speculate and helpful to see the ways that people are similar, as well as understand where diagnoses can go wrong, but as a total layperson my contributions might have to be a little smaller than all that.

So here’s what I’m going to do for myself, as well as some suggestions for how other folks can learn from the parallels between borderline and autism.

I am a highly sensitive person. I don’t mean emotionally, although that’s also true, but I’m talking about physical senses. I love roller coasters, climbing, and other moving fast/adrenaline style adventures. I’m highly light sensitive and averse. I have lots of issues with textures (this is why I don’t eat tofu). Most perfumes and scents make me sneeze. I hardly have it as bad as some people, but I’m definitely on the “strong senses” end of the spectrum.

It’s extremely common for kids on the spectrum to have sensory difficulties, whether extreme sensitivity or under sensitivity or a mix of the two in various senses. And since it’s so common for those with autism, one of the more common elements of treatment is a sensory diet, or another way to help a kid or adult regulate and organize their sensory experience.

So what I’m going to try to do for myself is create a sensory diet. Once again, I’m finding that the curb cut effect is in full force. Sensory diets are probably great for just about anyone who finds that they’re not getting sensory needs met. I’m not diagnosable, but I definitely need more movement, tactile input, and help with my internal regulation (hunger, temp). After looking at some of the resources for folks with autism, I found a starting list that sounds like it will be helpful to me:

-emotion cards

-notebook and pen

-fidgets

-fuzzy socks

-candles

-be a burrito

-climbing/monkey bars/proprioception

-hammock or rocking chair

-be upside down

-piano

-go outside: water sounds

-exercise

-swimming!

That’s just for a start, but you get the idea. The bonus? I’m also using these sensory regulation tools for self soothing when my anxiety starts to go off the rails. I find it incredibly helpful to focus on very concrete, very basic things like the senses when I’m trying to combat anxiety. I can argue with just about anything else, but sensory input gets to the heart of the matter. So instead of making a self soothing box with affirmations or art work, which has never felt useful to me, I’m creating a sensory box with soft things and fidget and reminders of how to move my body effectively.

 As a side note, I would like to invite anyone with autism to let me know if this is appropriative at all, but my understanding of neurodiversity and its tenets is that stimming/sensory needs/other things autistics speak out about are often needed by lots of people, and the more we can integrate them into society at large the better.

On the flip side, I also think there are elements of the most common BPD therapy, DBT, that could be incredibly helpful to those who struggle to communicate or identify feelings, those who don’t find socializing super easy, or those who aren’t great at self soothing. DBT gives strategies like concrete and easy steps to set a boundary, and encourages patients to identify their values and needs. It suggests that people think about how physically different emotions feel to them so that they can use the physical reactions of their body to identify and communicate an emotion when it’s happening. It suggest methods to combat black and white thinking, like making pro and con lists, or writing out/reviewing facts about what is happening. While some of these things might require adaptation for people with autism, they could enrich that therapeutic experience.

Of course it makes sense for treatments to be individualized based on the diagnosis present, but I always wonder why there isn’t more cross pollination between diagnoses. Some of the techniques used for feeding therapies could be useful for eating disorders, DBT is useful for bipolar and eating disorders, autism treatments might be helpful for lots of people who feel quickly overwhelmed. I would love to see more communication between communities within the larger mental illness umbrella.

2 thoughts on “Creating a Sensory Diet: Lessons from Autism

  1. Benny Vimes says:

    “stimming/sensory needs/other things autistics speak out about are often needed by lots of people, and the more we can integrate them into society at large the better.”

    Yes – but there is a risk we need to be aware of in this. If stimming is normalized among alistic people who generally can take it or leave it, doing so only when it’s considered socially appropriate etc, there is a real risk of reinforcing existing structures that make certain stimming behavior inappropriate in some contexts. If we can create a culture in which playing with a fidgit is ALWAYS okay, and hand flapping is ALWAYS okay etc then real progress with be made. But doing these things only in limited contexts may accidentally reinforce the existing problem.

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