Christina holding a blue blanket over her head

The word sensual has become synonymous with sexual, but it’s not really about that. Not completely, at least, although that act is a very sensual one. Merriam-Webster gives one definition of the word as “relating to or consisting in the gratification of the senses or the indulgence of appetite.”

Some people have this thing called “willpower” or “restraint.” Some of us find that a bit harder. Not in a deviant, sociopathic way, although that type of person certainly exists, too. But some of us have sensory needs that seem more intense than what others experience. For those of us who are autistic, we would be dubbed “sensory-seeking.”

Sensory Seeking

I can get lost in the feeling of an ultra plush blanket. I generally prefer to have clothes on, but sometimes after I bathe, I like to curl up in bed with just my fuzzy blanket around me, and there’s nothing like it in the world. The way it feels against my skin is…perfect.

Christina holding a blue blanket over her head

The taste of a slice of just-greasy-enough pizza washed down with my cola du jour. I crave this…often. It feeds a hunger that is deeper merely feeding my physical body. It’s satisfying on multiple levels.

too-hot bath (with Epsom salt) is the most rejuvenating type of bath for me. If I don’t feel the slight sting on my skin as I climb into the water, it just doesn’t seem to help soothe my aches and pains as much. A bath that’s warm-bordering-on-hot will still reduce the swelling in my legs and provide some pain relief, but I won’t feel like it was as helpful.

At rock concerts, despite them being too loud for comfort, the sound of the music makes it nearly impossible for me not to get up and dance – or at least sit in my seat and dance if I’m having physical issues. I feel the music through my whole body. My feet tap to the rhythm and I sway back and forth. I know I look ridiculous when I dance, but I don’t care. I have to move, to be a part of the music. I have to sing along. The music is everything.

Homemade gingerbread cookies are addictive to me. It’s not just that they taste good incredible, it’s how they feel in my mouth. The texture as I bite into them, the warm and slightly spicy taste of the cookie mingled with the mildly sweet buttercream frosting… The pleasure of eating cookies can actually improve my mood instantaneously.

Lack of Sensory Stimulation

The longing for some of these sensations can be just as crippling as the experiences themselves are awash with joy. If all I want in the world (for that moment) is a gingerbread cookie, but we’re out of sugar – this happened during last week’s terrible weather – I feel more depressed. If I’m looking forward to a takeout meal, only to discover that the left out half of my order and the roll on my burger is stale, it can ruin my entire night. If the water heater isn’t doing its best and I end up with a lukewarm bath, I’ve been known to have a meltdown cry because the water was too cold and I couldn’t stay in the tub long enough for it to be beneficial.

Being repeatedly denied a sensory experience that I was looking forward to stokes both my anxiety and my depression. In turn, that can lead to further sensory-seeking desires…and it’s a big downward spiral. Occasionally I can substitute one for another in the short-term – like curling up in my blanket when something else didn’t go my way – but it’s always only a temporary measure.

When the anxiety kicks in, you can probably find me picking at my fingernails or finger flapping. (Picture your fingers doing “the wave.” And it has symmetry, so if one hand starts, the other has to. And sometimes my toes join in.) These are things referred to as “stims” when you’re on the autism spectrum. Stimulating behaviors. Self-stimulation when you need sensory input. My finger flapping can end up being quite painful. Even when my fingers start to cramp, I physically can’t stop my hands from doing the motion until my brain has decided it’s had enough. The best I can do in those instances is clasp my hands and interlace my fingers, holding them like that until the cramping diminishes, and then start the flapping again until it subsides.

I’d love to hear from anyone else who has similar sensory issues. What are some of the sensations you need most often? How do you cope?

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