Sensory Experience

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec  Write

Henri de Toulouse-LautrecWrite


We gather information about the world, ourselves, and people around us through what we see, hear, taste, smell, and feel. I have often been struck by how important this sensory experience is both in autism and in writing.

Because autism affects the nervous system, many people with autism experience sensory input differently than most people around them do. As the mother of a child with autism, I’ve learned to be extra aware of the sensory environment we move through so I can help my son either avoid problematic sensory stimulation, or be prepared to appropriately employ the coping mechanisms we have learned over the years.

In writing, sensory information helps a story’s setting feel real, sets the mood of a scene, and makes the characters come to life. But knowing how much sensory detail to include, and where to include it can be its own kind of challenge.  

In real life, a given environment is packed with sensory information. The quality of the light, all of the objects you can see, sounds, smells, textures, the temperature and movement of the air, and on and on. A typical person’s brain sorts through all that input and chooses the most important information to focus on, while filtering out what it deems to be insignificant.

For some people with autism, one sensory challenge can be that the brain might not always filter out the “background noise.” This can make it difficult to focus on the voice of the person speaking instead of on the hum of the air conditioner, the whir of the cooling fan in a nearby computer, the way the slight flicker of the fluorescent lights shimmers on the textured wallpaper, or the movement of the ant crawling across the carpet next to the table leg. The sheer volume of sensory input can be confusing and overwhelming. And if a sensory channel becomes too overloaded by incoming sensory information, the human brain can even shut off a sense entirely as a defense mechanism (a little-known fact I learned after I realized that my son was experiencing periodic bouts of temporary deafness).

In writing, including too many sensory details can have a similar effect. Lengthy descriptions can be confusing, can distract from the important movement of the story, and can even cause a reader to “shut down” and abandon the book entirely. Descriptions often work best when authors filter them down to just a few key sensory details.

Most people with typical nervous systems experience some times when their senses seem to kick into high gear, and other times when they seem deadened. For example, alcohol, some medications, and exhaustion can make a person less responsive to sensory input. And stress, whether it’s good stress (like a surprise party or a first kiss) or bad stress (like being shot at or having to give a speech) can cause the body to produce hormones that kick the senses into high gear. Many people with autism experience these shifts in sensory sensitivity to an extreme that can become uncomfortable, or even painful.

In writing, changing the sensitivity of a character’s sensory experience to fit the circumstances can help make a scene feel more real. For example, during a first kiss scene the characters might be excruciatingly aware of the softest touches against their skin, the scent of cologne or candles, the soft sounds of breathing, the flush of the beloved’s cheeks.

At such times, characters may also be more aware of internal sensory information, not just external. A character might hear the pounding of his own heart, feel goosebumps rise on her skin, see the afterimage of a bright light even when eyes are closed, taste fear.

However, if every scene is presented with the same deep level of minute, focused sensory detail, the story will become uncomfortable, even painful to read.

A further consideration in choosing which sensory details to include should be the fact that no two people will experience even the same, identical sensory environment in exactly the same way. Each person’s sensory perception is affected by their own past experiences, personal traumas, physical and psychological differences, and so forth. For example, when I was younger I cleaned hotel rooms to earn money for college. For many years afterward, whenever I entered a hotel room, I found myself very aware of small details of the room’s arrangement, such as how many hangers there were and how they were grouped, and whether the seam on the toilet paper wrapper faced the wall. My traveling companions rarely noticed these things. A lot can be implied about a character by carefully choosing which sensory details that character notices and how he or she reacts to them.

Finding the right balance of descriptive detail to action, and choosing the best sensory details to convey the most meaningful description along with the proper mood can be a very tricky art form to master. Writers too often focus on just what can be seen and heard, while neglecting the other senses. The next few posts in this series will explore ideas for how individual senses might be used to advantage in writing.