The Autistic Writer: The Five Senses

Many with Autism Spectrum Disorder have a love/hate relationship with their five basic senses. It’s common for one or more of the senses to overwhelm an Autistic person. Other on the Spectrum are numb in more than one of the same. And of course combinations exist: an acute sense of smell and a blunted auditory experience can coexist in the same person. (With the obvious assumption that there are no anatomical deficits, such as deafness, to account for.)

Fully immersive fiction takes the sensory experience into account. This isn’t to suggest that in every scene the author should describe in detail everything the character sees, hears, smells, touches and tastes. That would get tedious in short order. Exploration of sensory inputs though are a highly effective means to enliven a story. So an awareness of the senses is helpful for the author, especially if they are writing characters that do not share their particular sensory input profile.

I am fortunate in this regard. I don’t suffer a near constant sensory overload as many of my fellow Autistics do. Hearing is probably my most sensitive sense, and even then, only in certain circumstances. Sustained loud noises, or simultaneous opposing sounds (think two TVs on at one time) can drive me up a wall.

Because I have a particular awareness of sound as a person, it usually enjoys a strong presence in my fiction. I include dialogue in this category. A common frustration of mine during revisions is finding a way to describe a speech on the page the way I hear it in my mind.

Music would play a larger role in my stories, if not for copyright issues. (Off topic tip to writers: never mention or include the lyrics of a modern song in your fiction. Enough red tape to choke a rhino.) In real life music is a huge part of my mood.

Vision is of equal significance in my writing.  I’m a visual storyteller in large degree. I don’t believe in intricate-to-purple prose to describe every sleeve of every shirt on every character in a scene. That is an excellent way to keep me away from a story. Still, despite being a character-first author, I need the reader to have a notion of setting early on.

Without having a specific test to confirm this, I suspect my sense of smell is above average. For all I know, far above. I often must limit my exposure to certain things that don’t bother other people simply because of the smells associated with it. It’s not crippling, but I have to bear it in mind.

I have made a specific effort to incorporate smell into my fiction. It is, after all the most immersive of all the senses, the one most connected to memory. All the same, earlier in my writing life I often neglected odor in my descriptions. I have wondered if this extra effort is required because I unconsciously “censor” what I smell so often in real life. Could my need to be selective about what I can smell have influenced how I leave smell out of my fiction by default?

Touch and taste are the final two of the “Big Five” and the two I call upon the least in my fiction. Between the two, I refer to tactile experience more often. Why? In this case, I don’t even have a theory. I suffer no disfunction in this regard. Like anyone I have certain textures I find unpleasant, but it’s not like they’re forced on me.

Pain is not exactly the same as the sense of touch, but as a sort of cousin to touch, I write about it more than any other true touch experience. (Even then, only as demanded by the plot.)

And taste? I won’t lie, I almost never include it in my stories. When there is eating at all, I rarely go beyond telling the reader if the food was good, bad, or neutral. To be honest with myself, I should include this sense more often than I do. Many books dedicate a large percentage of ink to the nature of meals, even if the meal ends up unrelated to the plot. Truth be told,  overkill in the description of food is one of the top reasons I DNF a book.

Like sex, (a tactile topic for a future post in this series) tasting food tends to distract from any story I want to tell, despite the taste of food being one of the most refreshing sensations of my real life.

In the end, the ratio of the senses isn’t vital to telling a good story. But as an Autistic writer I remind myself that my relationship to the senses is atypical, when that of my characters (and readers) in general is not.

Side note: I highly recommend the book A Natural History of the Senses, by Dianne Ackerman.

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