Social Participation and the Autistic Sensory System

Every time autistic people interface with the world outside their skin they bring along their sensory system that is often unstable and foists many unexpected experiences upon them. The solutions we employ to deal with the many sensory assaults we experience in social envi- ronments are coded by others as “behaviors.” This is because other people cannot see the inside workings of our sensory system. They can only see the outward behaviors we display as we respond to our inner experience. The following is about one experience of eating at a restaurant, but it is easy to understand that most social participation for an autistic means managing a sensory system that is often unreliable.

Here is an example from my own autistic life:

Lots of people like to eat out. I do, too. Because of my sensory sensitivities, I have learned to reduce certain input to the best of my ability in restaurants so as to better enjoy the experience.

It is impossible to control for all sensory sensitivities at a restaurant. However, I have learned to scan the place and figure out what I can do to make it the best experience possible. A recent gathering was wonderful because the restaurant was spacious with plenty of room between tables, very few diners, soft lighting, soft music and chairs with arms. The perfect sort of place for me!

When the atmosphere isn’t so perfect, I ask for a booth if the place has booths. A booth ensures that nobody will walk behind me and surprise me, causing a startle reaction. A tall-backed booth greatly cuts down the noise. If a booth is not available, I ask to be seated along the perimeter of the dining room.

If there are blinking lights, TVs or lots of movement, I know I will get dizzy. Chairs with arms are great to help me stay anchored. Even if I don’t get dizzy, I often have trouble feeling where my body is located in crowded noisy places. If I don’t have a chair with arms, I will find something to lean at least one side of me against – wedge in with the table or, if in a booth, lean against a wall or a willing friend.

There usually isn’t much a person can modify about lights in a restaurant, but I try to avoid downlights if at all possible. Sitting on the perimeter of the dining room helps reduce the noise input. There is not the surround sound with a wall behind you!

Friends will often suggest I use my earplugs in a restaurant. I realize they have never tried wearing earplugs while eating! It magnifies the noise of your chewing so much that it is nearly impossible to eat. I control for whatever I can in a given environment and then do my best to cope with the rest. Sometimes I do better than other times.

One time I was on a trip with friends. Each morning we ate breakfast in the hotel dining room before setting out for the day. One particular morning, I couldn’t make up my mind about what to order. The waitress came back several times to see if I was ready to order. My thoughts were “sticky,” meaning I would get part way through a thought of what to order and then lose the thought, only to have it butt in on the next thought that involved the next menu item. It was frustrating. I know it made me look like I needed lots more help than I actually did.

When the waitress returned once again and I still did not have my order ready, I wanted her to understand that I wasn’t trying to be difficult and blurted out as way of explana- tion, “I am really not as stupid as I look!”

The waitress acted all flustered. I felt bad because I had no negative intent towards her – just wanted to offer an explanation of sorts about my situation. In retrospect, I should have left well enough alone, but wanting to smooth over the situation when the waitress was apologizing and saying she didn’t mean to rush me, I very supportively replied, “Oh, don’t worry about it. I know that you are probably not as smart as you look either.”

I tell this story so you can know our good intentions are not always conveyed by the words that come out of our mouths. This is especially true when we are on sensory overload or having trouble with movement in our thoughts or in our bodies. Please remember – we are doing the best that we can, given the neurology of our autism.

Selection adapted from Autistically Thriving: Reading Comprehension, Conversational Engagement, and Living a Self-Determined Life Based on Autistic Neurology

Note: The author is autistic, intentionally uses identity-first language (rather than person-first language), and invites the reader, if interested, to do further research on the preference of most autistic adults to refer to themselves using identity-first language.


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