#TheDress Reveals Something Pretty Profound About Autism

Some people think #TheDress is blue, others think it’s gold, and they’re completely freaking out over the disagreement. But some people with autism know all about what it’s like to see, hear, and feel the world differently than everyone else.

Autism advocate Temple Grandin. Michael Buckner / Getty Images / Via gettyimages.com

Last night, the internet came alive to fight over that dress. Was it gold and white, as nearly three-quarters of BuzzFeed poll respondents believe, or black and blue, as Kanye West does?

While the Twittersphere carried on, Emily Willingham, a developmental biologist and mother of an autistic boy, made a profound point about the dress and autism:

Scientists have known for decades that autism is often characterized by sensory issues. The well-known autistic advocate Temple Grandin, for example, has often spoken out about her extraordinary vision and sensitivity to touch.

The range of autism-related sensory issues is large. Some people, such as Ari Ne’eman, president of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, have trouble with certain textures. “Velvet, in particular, I find very difficult to touch,” he told BuzzFeed News. Others cower at high-pitched noises, he added, or lights that emit low-level hums that most people don’t notice. Yet others have issues with smells and tastes.

“I tend to see lots and lots of things but cannot distinguish those things without spending actual time building them actively in my brain,” Karla Fisher, who runs a popular Facebook page about autism, told BuzzFeed News. “I have to focus on an area and wait until my eyes can actually make sense of that small area, and then I can move on. It isn’t about colors or not colors. It is rather about dress or not dress.”

Last night’s dress incident, Ne’eman said, is “a really good way of acknowledging that people see things differently, perceive things differently, and one way is not necessarily superior to the other.”

Despite the fact that sensory issues have long been recognized in scientific research on autism, it’s only recently that they’ve received widespread attention. It wasn’t until 2013 that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, known as the “bible” of psychiatric diagnoses, included sensory issues as part of the diagnostic criteria for the disorder.

This oversight has weighty consequences in the clinic, Ne’eman said. For example, many people with autism feel pain at different levels than people without autism, and have trouble communicating this difference to their doctor. “So the doctor may not diagnose you with certain conditions” — such as a bone fracture, say — “that for a member of the general population would mean much more or much less pain than you happen to be experiencing.”

“When we look at where autism research funds are flowing,” he said, “this is just another example of a missed opportunity.”

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