According to the number of senses working at a time the person can be classified into ‘multi-track’ versus mono-processing (Williams 1996). Most people use their senses simultaneously, so when they are hearing something, they are still aware of what they see and feel emotionally and physically. Many autistic individuals are unable to filter incoming information
However, it is one thing to perceive (at the stage of sensation), but to process all this information is a different matter altogether. No brain is capable of consciously processing all the hundreds and thousands of sensory stimuli around us. To avoid sensory overload, only one modality is processed consciously by the brain (though subconsciously a great amount of information may get in – ‘accumulation of unknown knowing’ – Williams 1996). The person might focus on one sense, for example, sight, and might see every minute detail of the object. However, while his vision is on, the person might lose awareness of any information coming through other senses. Thus, while the person sees something, he does not hear anything, and does not feel touch, etc. When the visual stimulus fades out, the sound could be processed, but then the sound is the only information the person is dealing with (i.e. disconnected from sight). As the person focuses on only one modality at a time, the sound may be experienced louder because it is all the person focuses on.
For people who work in mono to process the meaning of what they are listening to while being touched may be to have no idea where they were being touched or what they thought or felt about it. To process the location or special significance of being touched while someone is showing them something means that they see nothing but meaningless colour and form and movement. For example, Donna Williams’s inner-body sense, like everything else, was mostly in mono: if she touched her leg she would feel it on her hand or on her leg but not both at the same time. She had big restrictions in being able to process information from the outside and inside at the same time, for example, touching the furniture she could feel the texture of the wood but would have no sense of her own hand. She could also switch channels and feel her own hand but would lose sensation of what her hand was in contact with. Without being able to process her own body sensations in relations to textures it was, perceptually, as though either she did not exist and other things did or she existed and they did not. She was either in a constant state of jolting perceptual shifts or remained on one sensory channel or the other (Williams 1998).
Or take another example: an autistic student cannot take notes at the lecture because he can either or write, but not both. Many of his teachers think he is being lazy or inattentive because he doesn’t look at his teacher, just sitting there with a blank look on his face, but, in fact, he is focused on what his lecturer is saying. He is very good at taking one thing at a time.
Actually, this type of processing is taken advantage of by the parents of some autistic children who are ‘picky eaters’. Children with very restricted diets (hypersensitive to taste/smell, texture of the food) will eat better if they are watching a video, listening to music or talking to someone.
Individuals with autism define this mono-processing as one of their involuntary adaptations to avoid sensory overload or hypersensitivity. We should be aware of this style of perception in order to give the child information in a way he will be able to process. The matter is complicated by the fact, that they could switch channels and our task is to find out which channel ‘is open’ to get the information.
A child with mono-processing may have problems with multiple stimuli. Find out which channel ‘is open’ at the moment. Always present information in the child’s preferred modality. If you are not sure what it is or which channel ‘is on’ at the moment (in the case of fluctuation), use multi-sensory presentation and watch which modality ‘works’. (Remember though, that they can switch channels.)
Williams, D (1996) Autism: An Inside-Out Approach. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Williams, D. (1998) Autism and Sensing. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Written by Olga Bogdashina on behalf of Integrated Treatment Services