The Intense World Theory of Autism – What we’ve been saying all along!

As I walk through the doors of the restaurant, I am hit immediately by the forceful wave of sound. It blasts from every direction, people’s conversations, the scooting of chairs, clattering of silverware, dings of phones, everything blends into an impossible-to-process cacophony. Some things, such as the laughs of patrons, the occasional shattering of a dropped plate, whatever muzak they have playing, cut through the wall of sound like a red hot knife that pierces into my eardrums. There’s so much movement that my head starts to spin. I want to run, but I can’t. I can’t think straight. The whole world spins around me. I feel like I’m drowning, being pulled underwater with nothing I can do but wait it out. All I can do is sit, look down, and do my best to cope.

overwhelmed in light
The best royalty-free image I could find for “overwhelmed.”

Camera flashes are like exploding supernovae. They catch me completely off-guard, hit me out of nowhere like a brick and completely reset my train of thought. The wrong fabric feels like wearing a cactus, and a lite touch on the shoulder I’m not expecting turns my fight or flight response up to eleven. Emotions are so strong and confusing, they’re like rip currents that want to pull me out to sea, and I feel like there’s nothing I can do but gasp for air and hope I don’t drown.

I’m autistic, which means that I do not process the world like most people do. I hear everything around me with equal presence, and some sounds and frequencies I process as literally painful. Everything is louder and brighter and I have trouble blocking anything from any sense out. My emotions are turned up as well. Others know and recognize their emotions as if they were talking to old friends. Emotions to me are strong, uncharted currents, where half the time I don’t know what I’m feeling but it’s dragging me underwater anyway.

My world is intense, and these are just a few of hundreds of examples. (Luckily, the restaurant example is extreme, and most situations aren’t as bad as I described, especially since I’ve learned how to cope). I’m having trouble finding the words to describe my exact experiences, but I hope you can understand.

Ever since “autism” was brought into the American lexicon by Leo Kanner in the late 40s, scientists have been puzzling over what makes autistic people autistic. The early days attempted to explain autism as a type of schizophrenia, and later the “refrigerator mother” parent-blaming theory was popular in scientific circles. As these ideas were discredited, hypotheses continued to persist under the idea that autistic people simply did not feel emotion. It was proclaimed that autistic people must lack empathy, because they wouldn’t be “so autistic” if they had empathy!

In all of this, one critical group was ignored: autistic people. We’ve been saying for years that we don’t lack feeling, instead we feel too much. Only recently has the general population and academic circles come around to this realization as well and has stopped thinking of autistic people as some sort of cold robots. In truth, autistic people experience the world on a very deep level, and may feel emotions more strongly than most people.

There’s a new autism theory that attempts to capitalize on this idea:

The Intense World Theory of Autism

The Intense World Theory of Autism (IWToA from here on out) attempts to reduce autism down to one simple thing: differences in sensory perception. The idea is that sensory and emotional processing differences in autistic people are responsible for what we recognize as “autism.” It explains autism in terms of sensory perception (because theories, in science, are not guesses, but are explanations of facts). So the argument goes that you too would stim, melt down, pick up special interests, and communicate differently if you perceived the world as a continuous sensory assault.

I won’t go into crazy detail, as there’s lots you can read on this with a quick google search, but I’ll tell you this: as an autistic person, the IWToA makes a lot of sense. I can easily see how much of autism in myself and in others can potentially be reduced to processing differences through all 26 (give or take) senses as well as emotions. My world is intense. That’s life as an autistic person. I’m glad this is finally being acknowledged and applied.

From a biological perspective, this makes sense too. I firstly like how it integrates sensory perception and emotional perception as the same factor because, technically speaking, emotions are sensory perceptions. Emotions are felt when your brain releases chemicals that are then picked up by receptors within your brain and processed like sensory input. Emotions are sensory. And given that autistic people have differences in sensory processing, it should be expected that we would have differences in emotional processing as well.

Cultured_Rat_Hippocampal_Neuron_(24327909026)
A net of neurons.

In oversimplified terms, autism can be reduced on a cellular level down to connectivity differences among neurons themselves. In the autistic brain, neurons make more connections with other neurons than they do in non-autistic people, but these connections are less developed. The autistic brain is hyper-connected. (And if I may take the time to refute a common misconception, this means autism is neurological in nature, not psychiatric).

Amygdala
A diagram showing the location of the amygdala (in red) in the center of the brain.

This hyper-connectedness is especially apparent in in the amygdala. The amygdala is the region of the brain in which, in humans, emotions are processed. The amygdala is also the place that initiates the “fight or flight” response. In autistic people, the amygdala is significantly more active than it is in neurotypical people, and some research suggests it may even be physically enlarged in autistic people. A hyper-active and larger amygdala is also commonly seen in prey animals that exist lower in the food chain and must live constantly on the alert for predators. This data therefore backs the idea that autistic people actually do feel emotions as well as a flight or fight response more than other people, and therefore it supports the Intense World Theory.

I think the IWToA should be embraced more, because, for a single explanatory framework, I believe it is the most accurate reductionist description of autism. If more people would pick it up, I think it will be a game changer in the autism world. (Though, it’s nothing new to autistic people, who have been saying this for years). However, there are a few areas in which this theory falls short, for example some autistic people are undersensitive to many sensory perceptions, and so it’s hard to apply the IWToA to them. As such, I believe it is just a part of what makes up autism, albeit a very large and important part.

Given your personal experience and understanding, what do you think of the Intense World Theory?

 

17 thoughts on “The Intense World Theory of Autism – What we’ve been saying all along!

  1. I think we’ll probably find that IWToA isn’t the whole story, but it’s certainly better than other theories the “experts” have come up with in the past. As for being hypersensitive in some senses and hypo-sensitive in others, it might be as simple as being so overloaded with one sense means that the brain closes down another sense to avoid an internal “meltdown”. I know in my case, that I cannot make eye contact and understand what the other person is saying. It’s one or the other. And in the case of reading body language and facial expressions, they are too subtle to detect when so much else is going on around me bombarding the senses, but in quiet one to one communication (for example late evening at home), my wife tells me I’m “almost normal” 🙂

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  2. I am not autistic but I have aphantasia and also I feel my emotions very extremely. It is difficult to translate the way I perceive to other people and it seems they need me to change to accommodate them rather them trying to understand or ask me questions about how they may be misconstruing my words, tone, or behavior. If I try to explain folks seem to get the sense I am feeling the need to defend or justify myself and say, “please don’t feel the need to explain yourself to me. I accept you as you are.” So, in that way, there is no way through to better communication. This seems a lot like what autistic people experience but I don’t think I am autistic. I wonder what it is. Do folks here have any idea?

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi, Loaidan,
        Have you ever heard of alexithymia? It’s a neurodivergence that’s incredibly common in autistic people, but having it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re autistic. Essentially, this makes it very hard to identify and understand your own emotions. One common indicator of this condition is feeling emotions as physical sensations.

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  3. Temple Grandin has had a lot of experiments and experienced more things than most autistics
    going back to the 50s and 60s and she explains a lot of this in her books it was one of the first book I read on autism she is
    Such an international person ☺

    Liked by 1 person

  4. When I was first introduced to the IWToA (I think it was back in 2013/2014), I went, “This makes so much sense.” I agree it doesn’t account completely for everything that we experience (though hyposensitivity might very well not be the opposite of hypersensitivity), but it seems to play a role in at least most of what we experience, including the issues around processing speed/time (we’ve got so much input coming in, with damaged filters, that our brain just can’t work as fast as those who don’t have that major level of input), executive function (same thing), and reading NT body language (see: We have so much information/input coming in…).

    So yes, I definitely believe that at the very least, it’s a theory that makes a great deal of sense of a number of the differences autistics have.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Before my child was diagnosed, I described him as an intense empath. He could smell food a mile away and could feel our emotions, even when we did not verbalize them. This theory makes sense to me. The best way I can understand it is to remember when I lived in London — such a crowded, mega city — this country girl was overwhelmed and I preferred staying home.
    Thank you for this blog.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Mein heute 15-jähriger Sohn wurde mit 8 diagnostiziert und ich habe mich in den ersten Jahren in alle möglichen Richtungen weitergebildet zum Thema Asperger. Vor allem auch, weil soviel nicht passte, was die “typischen” Anzeichen betrifft…mangelnde Empathie, nicht in die Augen schauen usw. Als ich über die Intense world theorie stolperte, passte das so haargenau. Ich hab auch gelesen, dass die Theorie viel kritisiert wird, dazu kann ich mich als Laie nicht äußern. Der Alltag hat einfach gezeigt, dass mein Kind überempathisch und hyperverdrahtet ist, und in ruhiger Umgebung aufblühte und plötzlich zu Leistungen fähig war – Theaterspielen, Klavierspielen, für die Schule lernen, mit den Geschwistern spielen. Freilich hab ich ihn vom regulären Unterricht abgemeldet und wir sind auf Homeschooling umgestiegen – plötzlich wurde aus einem Schulversager ein interessiertes und motiviertes Kind. Die neue Sichtweise hat uns und dem Familiensystem eigentlich das Leben gerettet.
    Also wünsche ich mir, dass viel geforscht wird in diese Richtung.

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    1. That’s wonderful that you do homeschooling in Germany! Autistic people really do better when we can control our sensory input.

      Like

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