The Light Fantastic of Autism

A while back I wrote this post on noise sensitivity in autistic people.  Out of all the ways my probable autism affects me in everyday life, noise sensitivity is definitely up there as one of the most severe.

I am, however, becoming more and more aware of how light sensitivity also affects me on a near-daily basis.

I’ve always had a lot of slightly weird visual disturbances but assumed they were all normal.  That’s the thing about so many autism indicators and traits: it’s often easy to assume everyone gets them and to the same extent as you do right up until you realise they don’t.

As far as I’m aware, everyone struggles with direct light shining in their eyes.  Other people have to squint, shade their eyes or look away.  It’s totally normal.  But it doesn’t seem to affect them as much, as badly or for as long.

Bear, in particular, is very badly affected by the sun shining in his eyes.  Ask him to wear a winter hat because it’s cold and he’ll grumble away  but if the sun is low when he’s in his buggy – even if it’s not pointing right at him – he’ll beg for a hat and then pull it down right over his face.  He gets very upset by it being too sunny and will even cry or bury his head into the side of the buggy.

Back in autumn I still needed to bring a sunhat for him everywhere.

Bear and I also struggle sometimes on days when it’s perhaps overcast or there’s no direct sunlight.  Something about the sky or the shade of light just makes it hard to see properly.  I find I’m squinting when nobody else seems to be bothered at all.  There’s no obvious bright light but it almost hurts to fully open my eyes.

Natural light isn’t the only kind to cause me issues.  I have problems with certain kinds of artificial light, too.

Sometimes I feel like everything is really dim.  Even when I can tell the light should be bright enough to see what I’m doing it’s like I just can’t process it properly.  In fact, I’ve had recurring nightmares for years where I change light bulbs in rooms only to find I still can’t see properly because the problem is with my eyes and not the bulb.

The main sense we rely on as humans is sight and we assume how we see the world is the same as how others see it.  That’s why my youngest sister didn’t realise she was red-green colour blind until her mid-teens and it’s why I didn’t really think about all the problems I have with certain light and consider it might not be normal until relatively recently.

In fact, it was only a few days ago I realised how much my vision problems are caused or affected by me being stressed…or, as I often call it, ‘overloaded’.

As in ‘sensory overload’.

You know, like your senses…such as…sight.

I’ve known for a long time that prolonged noise can overload me and, once I’m already overwhelmed, I’m much more sensitive to noise.  Somehow, I hadn’t connected that information with the vision issues I get.  Now I know, however, I notice a pronounced difference in my vision and reaction to certain light when I’m feeling stressed compared to when I’m relaxed.  It’s like someone has put a bad Instagram filter over my eyes and everything looks saturated and weird.

I’d be willing to bet others on the spectrum experience even more visual distortion and problems with light.  Bright lights and certain artificial lights can cause massive problems for autistic people.  It’s one of the many reasons people with autism so often struggle with supermarkets – because of the horrible fluorescent lights.  Lights can cause those of us on the spectrum huge problems.

Of course, it’s now time for my catchphrase (yes, that’s right – this is a blog with a catchphrase…apparently).

It’s not as simple as that.

(I didn’t say it was a good catchphrase.)

Much like with sound, light can either be tortuous or comforting to someone with autism depending on the situation and source of light.

As I pointed out in the blog post about noise, as a teenager I unknowingly made my own sensory room.  I used to turn off my main bedroom light, close the curtains and turn on: my lava lamp, fibre optic lamp, plasma lamp, desk lamp and bedside lamp as well as a lighting a few candles.

It was calming and safe.  It was pretty and hypnotic.

The cubs have a light show that runs all night when they’re in bed as well as one that cuts out after 45 minutes and a Gro Clock, which also lights up.  If we didn’t use rechargeable batteries it would cost a fortune to keep the light shows running every night but the boys sleep better for having them.

Who doesn’t like a bedtime disco?

Tyger even went through a phase of going to sleep with a flashing tambourine held in front of his face.

At least light sensitivity seems to cause fewer arguments within the household than noise sensitivity, though Tyger and I did clash a few times when he went through a phase of insisting on keeping the curtains closed for most of the day because he couldn’t handle the sunlight coming through the windows.  As someone whose main priority when looking at houses to rent/buy is the number and size of windows because I hate rooms without much/any natural light this was tricky for me.

Reaction to light isn’t the only visual difference autistic people have.  Certain colours (and combinations or expanses of colours), clutter or visually messy areas, and repeating patterns can all affect people with autism differently to their neurotypical counterparts.  Perhaps, in the future, I’ll notice my own reactions to them and you’ll be treated to yet another ‘guess what I just realised!?’ post.  You can but hope.

 

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5 Comments


  1. What a great light and sensory lights are fab. Oliver, our son, was in hospital for most of his light and to make his room a bit more interesting we got him a big disco ball to project colours round his room when we weren’t there so he wasn’t just staring at the ceiling. He was soon known as “the boy with the disco lights” and “disco kid”. On intensive care they also had some fab sensory lights. Thanks for sharing this, it was a really good post and always good to learn more and raise awareness of autism. #marvmondays x

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  2. really interesting post – I am aware that my son is sensitive to sound but have never considered light – although he still likes to sleep with the lights fully on which causes arguments when he has to share a room with his siblings. It also gives me some more understanding as to why my husband gets so stressed out when me and the kids don’t put stuff away! He says he can’t relax with clutter – I just see a bit of homely mess. #spectrumsunday

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  3. This is such an interesting post. I’ll admit, I had no idea about light sensitivity in people with autism, so I’ve really learned a lot from this – thank you. #marvmondays

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  4. “Rainbows are tooooo beautiful” he says. My daughter also covers her eyes a lot and says the sun hurts them. So interesting for people, thanks for linking it to #spectrumsunday

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  5. I have always wanted one of those light shows that makes it look like the night’s sky is all around your room!

    Another fascinating post, I’ve never thought about how light sensitivity would affect people.

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