Personal Perspective

Sensory Overload: The Experience

Please press play to hear an audio recording of the post

Hello folks. Today’s post is going to be a more personal insight into autism as I want to talk about how a situation can escalate without others even realizing what it is doing to you. I am sure my other autistic people will recognize this situation as the same or at least similar to one they have been in themselves. I’ve even had a go at a couple of similes so you might be able to understand it more!

This tale starts with a very innocent beginning: a person dropping a glass onto a wooden table. The glass did not shatter nor break in any way. All it did was hit the table, fall onto its side and roll slightly to chink against the dinner plate beside it. I am aware than on paper it sounds about as awful as when you bite into a banana and it isn’t quite ripe enough yet. Not ideal but certainly not painful? However, for me it hurt as much as someone hitting me across the face with no warning. It was unexpected, loud and it stung. When I hear a sudden, loud noise, I don’t register it just as a shock like the other people at the table did, I register it as though I have just been injured. Noise is really painful, especially when I don’t realise it is about to happen. If you’ve ever had a migrane or just a really bad headache when any sound makes you want to curl up and cry and/or throw something at the person who caused it, then you might be able to understand how that situation felt to me. I would rather the person threw the glass directly at my face than drop it by mistake.

After something like that happens, something called sensory overload is triggered. My brain essentially went “OH MY GOSH SOMETHING TERRIBLE JUST HAPPENED AND I CAN’T DEAL WITH IT AND NOW EVERYTHING I RECEIVE IS TOO MUCH FOR ME TO HANDLE AND IS HURTING ME AND I NEED TO CONTROL THIS NOW!!!!!! AHHHHHHHH!!!!”. So, what happened next? Well in this case it was a sudden shock rather than a general crescendo of noise, so rather than having a full meltdown I instead covered my ears, closed my eyes and bent my head towards the floor, while trying to control my breathing which was suddenly way too fast. My heart was beating at a rate usually associated with running and my brain couldn’t process what had happened or what was continuing to happen around me. I couldn’t formulate thoughts properly and I certainly couldn’t understand the words being spoken to me by voices I recognized but didn’t know. I was aware only of an awful, lurching, sickening feeling that I have felt all too often, and which can be best described by one word: fear.

I was in this state for some unknown measure of time and was desperately trying to calm myself down with my usual routine of rocking backwards and forwards and reciting the square numbers up to 202. 1, 4, 9, 16, 25, 36, 49, 64, 81, 100, 121, 144, 169, 196, 225, 256, 289, 324, 361, 400. As I started this, I felt something touch my shoulder, so I reacted by swinging round and hitting whatever it was. It turned out it was my Dad’s hand trying to get my attention so he could ask how I was. Suddenly everything was back in sharp focus and in addition to the guilt I felt about accidentally hitting my Dad’s arm, I was at the dining table and could now see everything as well as hear it. I could see my family, some of whom were looking at me, some of whom were talking to each other. I could see the white plates that were reflecting the light and hurting my eyes, as well as the white ceiling and the pale coloured walls. I could see the bookshelf with all the different coloured recipe books as well as the table, the chairs, the vase, the food, the fruit bowl, the windows, the blinds, the two paintings, the plant and the cupboards. That wasn’t all I could see though. I could see the tiny crumbs scattered on the table, all the marks on the walls, the slightly uneven floorboards, the uneven paint layer on the cupboards. And I could hear the sounds as though they were being played directly into my ears at a volume that would be too loud, even for a rock concert. The scrape of the chair as someone moved, the sound of voices, the clink of cutlery being put down, the hum of the refrigerator in the next room, the sound of the boiler tank, the electricity in the walls. There were more noises that I was aware of but couldn’t place, and a sense of impeding danger had flooded my mind, causing my muscles to tense and my face to twitch and contort slightly. I couldn’t tune any of it out, no matter how hard I tried. Everything was at the front of my mind and everything was too much. I got out of my chair and left the room and went outside to be in the garden by myself.

Being outside usually helps me because that way I am usually further away from man-made noises. It is true that the birds will be tweeting, the wind blowing the leaves of trees together to make a rustling sound and the occasional insect will fly past and you will hear a buzzing sound. But usually that is all there is. There is no electricity in the walls, there are fewer voices around and there are rarely metal implements being placed on hard surfaces. In London it is trickier because in this instance I walked outside to be met with a distant siren and the sound of traffic on the high street, one road over. The reversing truck was also not the ideal addition to the scenario. However, the garden in my parent’s house does have 2 major advantages over being inside. The first is that my Dad recently acquired chickens who are extremely calming to watch and who like me a tremendous amount. They are very happy for me to be near them and a couple even enjoy me picking them up and stroking them. They are also animals and so I don’t have to worry about misjudging what they are doing or constantly having to mask around them. I can just watch them and stroke their heads while they make chirping noises that are oddly soothing. The second major benefit is that there is a swing bench. I can sit on it for an almost unlimited amount of time and the rocking sensation is incredibly calming. My first year uni accommodation was very close to a swing set, and I would go out and sit on the swing at any time of day; whether I needed to calm down or simply process my thoughts and emotions.

Chick-quille O’Neal, Chickira and Jonathan Jr getting ready for bed.

Christina Egguilera seeing what’s taking so long. (I named her!)

Being sent suddenly into a state where you can’t understand what is going on, and it is incredibly difficult to communicate what you need or want is unbelievably scary. In those moments I seem to lose my ability to speak and words will not leave my mouth. I can’t understand other’s words very well either and it will take me a much longer time than usual to process those that I do. I get almost stuck in limbo because I can’t quite work out how to ask for help, nor am I sure in that moment what help I need. I can’t really move because where I am no longer makes sense to me and any noise or bright lights feeds further and further into the swirling mess in my own head. And what I have just described is only the sensory overload stage. I will write another piece about a full meltdown but in essence, a meltdown is sensory overload but with complete loss of control over anything. It feels very similar but to a greater extent, and for me also includes uncontrollable crying, stimming, rocking etc… It is being trapped in a painful and scary place that only you are experiencing, and which you can only escape by having everything turned off, or through concerted effort on your part to wrestle back control of your mind against all the terror and hurt you are going through.

It is incredibly difficult to explain to someone who hasn’t experienced it, what sensory overload feels like and I hope what I have written makes sense. It isn’t just feeling irritated by something or finding a noise a bit grating. It is an intense physical reaction to something that no one else around you seems to feel, and it is more horrifying than they will realise by looking at you. If you have experienced this then please, please know that I understand, and I know how difficult it is and how tired it makes you. If people don’t take it seriously then they are in the wrong, not you. And if you don’t have ASD or haven’t felt this then please read what I wrote and know that I am not exaggerating. It might not be the same for everyone and it might not seem like that from your perspective, but this is the best way I can describe how it feels to me. Take it on board and I hope it was helpful in your understanding. Thank you for reading this and be nice to people. If you ever meet someone and they tell you about their sensory overload then hopefully you can listen and be as empathetic as possible, even if you can’t sympathise. Every person’s experience is different so listen to those you know and treat them with as much care as is safe and you are able to.

I know this was a more serious post, but I wanted to talk about it as it is a major part of my life. It can be triggered by something as simple as dropping a glass. I have to take measures so that I can go to a supermarket or shop by myself without this happening, and given that I have to eat, it is a situation that I am put in over and over again. There are ways to manage known situations and I plan on talking about them, but for the time being I hope you can relate to or understand more how it feels and why it should always be taken seriously. I have heard someone call me an inconvenience because of sensory overload and I can promise you that if I were granted divine powers, I would never experience it again. I cannot always control it and I do my utmost to prevent it, so if anyone ever says that an overload is “inconvenient”, then congratulations you have successfully found the person that you need to either a. cut out of your life, or, less drastically, b. sit down and give a talking to about what it actually means for you. Send them this post if it helps.

Anyway, thank you for reading this, stick up for yourself and other autistic friends / acquaintances, and try to hold onto your glasses!


3 thoughts on “Sensory Overload: The Experience”

  1. Sarah – I commend your openness and bravery to write this. It’s so important to share, so others can understand themselves too, even if it’s only 1 person viewing this – it counts. We can all share this world together atypical or not. Variety is the spice of life!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. When i teach …i have a number of students that go through this. I would love your insight into how to respond better and create better environments. As you say well meaning people may make the situation worse. I would love to put an around someone and say it`ll pass…but of course that isn`t remotely helpful. Figuring out how to help is difficult sometimes and that is why this wbesite will make such a difference. Talking is so important and understanding the experience is really helpful. keep telling it like it is with humour and candour.

    Liked by 1 person

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