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Part 5 - Invalidation of Sensory Experiences

Creating Safer Events and Spaces for Neurodivergent Dancers Series:

Part 5 - Invalidation of Sensory Experiences

Part 5 - Invalidation of Sensory Experiences

“It’s cold out,” says the caregiver. “Put your coat back on or you’ll catch a cold.”

“But I’m haaawt,” the child says.

“You can’t possibly be hot, it’s the middle of winter! Put on your coat.”

Differences in sensory processing are frequently dismissed or ignored by neurotypical people who assume a “socially acceptable sensory norm.” These invalidations are harmful, leading many neurodivergent people to withdraw and mask their experiences. In the little excerpt above, the caregiver invalidates the child because the societal expectation of this sensory experience is narrowly defined. However, children tend to have a higher base internal temperature than adults, and they tend to be more active than adults. Unless it’s below freezing, there is unlikely to be a health risk from not wearing a coat for the majority of healthy children.

The sensory experiences of neurodivergent people are often invalidated because the people around them don’t understand that sensory processing systems vary from person to person. The coat story is an example of socially sanctioned invalidation. While the story of the child above may seem inconsequential, or may even seem like the caregiver did the right thing (it was cold outside after all!), the child feels like their internal experience isn’t right. They are told not to trust themselves and their own body signals when they hear, “You can’t possibly be hot - it’s the middle of winter!” This invalidation is an insidious form of manipulation and control that is ingrained in much of our society.

One intense form of invalidation is called gaslighting, which is defined as: systematically feeding information to another person that contradicts their perceptions and experiences, with the intent to cause them to question their sanity and reality. Over time, gaslighting often leads people to lose trust in themselves. They may start to believe they can’t rely on their own perceptions and experiences (emotional, physical, or sensory) or their own memory.

While Neurodivergent people are more likely than the general population to experience abuse such as gaslighting, I want to draw your attention to a more subtle abuse many of us experience on a daily basis: unintentional gaslighting. In the example I gave, the caregiver doesn’t typically intend for the child to question their sanity. The intent is more likely caring for the child. However, unintentional gaslighting is having one’s experience repeatedly invalidated, even when the intention is one of care, the result being an internal distrust of one’s own perceptions and experiences.

Neurodivergent people are often subjected to (intentional and unintentional) gaslighting because their sensory experiences can be wildly different from the neurotypical or socially acceptable sensory experiences. Being the minority, neurodivergent folks often don’t feel safe in predominantly neurotypical spaces where their experiences are repeatedly and systematically invalidated. They’ll often be told their sensory experiences can’t possibly be true because no one else is experiencing them. Hurtful examples of phrases include:

"You can't possibly be cold!"

“The lights aren’t too bright. Why are you so sensitive?”

“The music isn’t too loud. You can hear me just fine. Stop making excuses for not listening to me.”

“What’s your problem? I was just giving you a hug. Hugs don’t hurt.”

A neurodivergent person may be processing an overwhelming sensory experience that neurotypical people don’t perceive because their sensory integration works differently. This difference doesn’t mean that the neurodivergent person’s experience is invalid, or out of sync with reality. This difference doesn’t mean that their behavior is rude or nonsensical. It simply means their bodies and sensory processing systems are different. Their experience is still very real and deserves validation and understanding.

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