Autism Acceptance Month: An Inside Look at Life as an Autistic Person

Savannah Sivertson is autistic and is a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst at ABS Kids. In recognition of Autism Acceptance Month, Savannah shares her experiences and insights.

By Savannah Sivertson, ABS Kids Board-Certified Behavior Analyst

While every autistic person experiences the world differently, we also share many similarities in how we interact with it. We all have different ways of processing and expressing the experiences we encounter.  

As a kid, the world around me felt off and intense, but I did not know how to explain those feelings. I largely believed that was everyone’s experience, and that I would get used to it.  

Of course, I did not. But with time and practice, I’ve learned how to communicate what it feels like to process the world around me.  

I relate sensory processing to a mixing board in my brain. Some dials start the day at the max, making me hyper aware of its existence and alerting me that it is likely going to be difficult tolerating that sensation on that day. Other dials are at the minimum, meaning my tolerance for the sensation is high, and I will seek out more of them.  

Throughout the day, these dials move up and down based on what is happening around me. If there is too much competing sound in the morning, that dial starts creeping higher and higher, and it will take a bit to bring it back down. When one dial shoots up too fast or too many sensations are happening at the same time, my brain feels fuzzy, my skin starts to itch, and I get panicky.  

I’ve learned that this is how I experience being overstimulated. And if I don’t get the dials down soon, I will melt or shut down until removing my skin stops feeling like the only option left to make it better.  

As a kid, when I had these experiences, my family learned to not ask any question or really say much of anything at all until I had spent time alone in the dark, cool basement with a snack and a TV show. Even questions as simple as, “How was your day?” would often cause me to burst into tears.  

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School is a particularly challenging place to be for eight hours when your senses can be overloaded. You hear the lights buzzing, every pencil scrape across paper, every squeaky chair, kids whispering on the other side of the room, the door opening and closing, the air conditioner turning on and off throughout the day. Every sound that exists throughout the day can impact you negatively.  

This all happens while being hyper aware that you’re wearing socks, and your hair keeps moving, the air is too cold or hot, the tags on your clothes are touching your skin, your sticky desk – all of it. And on top of everything you’re hearing and feeling, you are also trying to learn how to do math while hundreds of questions are thrown your way. All. Day. Long. 

That questions like, “How was your day?” or, “Do you have homework?” are likely to induce tears is not because they had a bad day or because they don’t want to do their homework. It happens because processing what people are asking – that it is a question and coming up with an answer is exhausting – can be incredibly stressful, and one can only hold it all in for so long.  

As an autistic person and a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) at ABS Kids, it is important to me to share my experiences, and how autistic people can experience the world. In my work, I use my experiences and understanding to help children and their families gain more insight into the full functions of behaviors, find replacement behaviors for dangerous ones that help meet the needs of the whole child, and provide further recommendations for potential products that may help with regulating emotions and sensory needs. I also help them find neurodiversity-affirming support to target needs more directly related to sensory processing.  

The best and most natural way to keep the dials somewhere in the middle is stimming. Repetition is very calming and can ground me when I’m starting to feel too much.  

Flapping my hands when I’m stressed is similar, in my mind, to turning down the music in the car so you can find the address you’re looking for. Turning up or down one sensation helps my brain focus and regulates my body.  

Let your autistic loved ones stim, embrace it, and try it! You might be surprised at how good it feels.