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FAKE vs REAL: Sensory Desensitization

Updated: Jun 7

A two panel cartoon by Autball.  1: A white box at the top reads: FAKE SENSORY DESENSITIZATION.  A red adult stands with a green adult and says, “We make them touch stuff they don’t want to over and over again while rewarding them for tolerating it and punishing when they don’t. And eventually, it just doesn’t bother them anymore!”  They are watching a teal adult using hand over hand to make a pink/magenta child touch a lumpy pile of pink stuff. The child is looking away with a blank look and thinking, “Dissociating, suppressing distress, no reaction makes it stop sooner…”  2: A white box art the top reads: REAL SENSORY DESENSITIZATION.  A Yellow/Green adult is talking to a Red/Orange adult. Y/G: Huh. You know how I’ve ALWAYS had to have something on my feet at all time for years? O/R: Yeah. Y/G: Well suddenly I don’t. O/R: Cool. What’d you do? Y/G: Nothin’. Just happened.

Sensory sensitivities are a huge part of being autistic (and sometimes ADHD, too). They can range from kind of annoying but manageable to debilitating and meltdown-inducing. They can fluctuate from day to day and situation to situation. They can seem to pop up one day out of nowhere and disappear just as quickly.

Sensory differences are dynamic, which can make them unpredictable and disruptive. Not many people like living that way, so working on sensory desensitization with someone who has sensitivities sounds like a thing that could help. Fewer meltdowns and able to do more things? Yes please!

But as you might have guessed, there’s a giant problem with that: reducing sensitivity isn’t really a thing you can do TO someone. At least, not without inducing a trauma response or two. You can certainly get someone to learn to ignore their own body signals or pretend to be fine when they’re not, but that’s not a sensory thing. That’s a dissociation thing.

“Sensory desensitization” is usually code for exposure therapy. Exposure therapy has its uses, but addressing neurodivergent sensory issues isn’t one of them. And it should only be done WITH someone who can fully consent and actively participate. Coercing and/or forcing someone to interact with distressing sensory input until they stop reacting is not that.

“Sensory desensitization” also operates under the assumption that people just get used to, or habituate to, the noises and sensations around them, even ones that bother them. But studies have shown that autistic people actually don’t habituate to sensory stimuli the way non-autistic people do. It may take way longer to happen, or it may never happen at all.

You know what can and does happen? Sensory sensitivities can just kinda…change. All on their own. We grow up, our hormones change, our stress levels change, our environments change, and our sensory profiles are affected by all of those things (and more!). Sensitivities can just disappear, naturally, without any intervention. And that’s about the only thing I’d ever refer to as real sensory desensitization.

But sensory sensitivities can go any which way. Maybe new ones rear their ugly heads. Or maybe something bothers us at a level 7 one day and 2 the next, then goes all the way up to 11 next week. And then there are the ones that just stay pretty much the same, all the time, forever.

I could not handle pants for a long time as a kid, but then somewhere along the way, I could. I really couldn’t tell you when it happened. There are some foods that used to make me gag that no longer do, and there are some that I still just cannot handle. I have never been okay with things that stick to my hands, and that really hasn't changed since as far back as I can remember.

You know what all these sensory sensitivities have in common? Someone made me “tolerate” them at some point, often repeatedly. And none of them changed (or didn’t) because of repeated exposure, but because of my natural development. All I got from forced exposure was this lousy tendency to disconnect from myself.

So, sensory desensitization is just not a goal or “treatment” that anyone should be agreeing to OR doing to anyone. Sensory integration is a real thing that can help people, but that is a whole different animal that requires more than just exposing people to stuff that bothers them. You’ll need an OT (Occupational Therapist) with the specialized training for that. Just make sure they’re not sneaking behaviorism tactics or exposure therapy in there either (yep, the words “sensory integration” can be used to misrepresent what they’re doing, too).

It is a far better thing to help someone learn about their own sensory profile and how to manage their sensory needs than to make them ignore their own body signals. Alexithymia is not #goals. There are better ways to deal with sensory sensitivities and distress, and I’ve linked to some of them below.

This is part 4 of a 5 part "FAKE vs REAL" series about the ways harmful practices are being made to sound more appealing through the co-opting of language and how to spot the differences between helpful and harmful approaches.

Part 1 on Neuro-Affirming Practice here

Part 2 on Self Regulation Skills here

Part 3 on Frustration Tolerance here

Part 5 on Communication Support here



Autistic People Do Not “Get Used To” Forced Sensory Stimuli (and Science Proves It)

Autism: A Different Sensory Experience

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