Hello folks! I’ve had some really interesting feedback from people who don’t have autism about the blog; in particular the post, ‘Sensory Overload: The Experience’, where they have expressed that they found it very useful as a way of understanding what it feels like to experience sensory overload. Therefore, I thought I would write a follow-up piece for those who don’t have autism, so that they can perhaps get a sense of what it feels like. Below you will find a DIY way to simulate a meltdown, so you can feel more akin to your autistic peers!
What you will need:
- A device that can play music
- Other people (preferably at least 3, and if they speak languages you don’t understand then even better!)
- A thick winter coat
- A tie
- Several torches
- Uncomfortable shoes
All you need to do now is put the tie on, but ever so slightly too tight. (To the point that it is slightly uncomfortable, and not to the point that you can’t breathe! Safety first people!) Next you should put on your uncomfortable shoes, and your thick winter coat over all your other clothes you are already wearing – buttons and zips done all the way up – and make sure that you are way too warm and it feels distinctly unpleasant. If you could get hold of scratchy woolen clothes as well to wear underneath then that would be perfect! Now you should put on the headphones, but don’t start the music just yet.
This is where the other people come into play! Have them all wear masks so you can’t read their faces and ask them to stand uncomfortably close to you. If they speak another language then that is a perfect way of understanding how hard it becomes to process speech when one is overwhelmed, but either way, ask them to speak about any topic they choose at a volume that would be described as “unnecessarily loud,” or “maximum volume possible”, in a tone that doesn’t correspond with their chosen subject matter.
We are almost there, but to simulate light sensitivity, give them all torches and ask them to turn them on and off whilst they are pointed in the general area of your face. Preferably not into your eyes as that would be dangerous, but they can certainly wave them around. Lastly, you should now give them the music device, ask them to turn the volume up very loud and start playing hardcore screamo music into your headphones at their own discretion, making sure it only lasts a second or two, and allowing gaps in between plays to allow your ears to try to readjust, before they start again.
You may have just read this and thought, “why in the name of all things good in this world would I ever do that to myself?” If you didn’t then I suggest you read it again, because that is one of the questions that every person should think. However, this is the best way I could think to recreate how it feels to have a meltdown. Let me walk you through it step by step:
The tie should help you feel the sensation of not being able to breathe as easily as you usually can and having the feeling of your throat not working properly.
The uncomfortable shoes will help you feel more sensitive to everything going on around you and help you understand the urge to curl up on the floor or be rooted to the spot, not wanting or even able to move.
The thick winter coat will add to the uncomfortableness and will make you extremely aware of the temperature and how things feel against your skin. It will also make you start sweating which is common in meltdowns.
Other people wearing masks is obvious. You shouldn’t be able to know what they are thinking by looking at their face.
People being uncomfortably close should simulate the feeling of a lack of space, as though you are trapped and can’t get out.
Those around you speaking in languages you don’t understand will demonstrate how it feels to not be able to process verbal communication.
Speaking loudly and in odd tones means you will understand how it feels to have noise sensitivity, and to be confused by the intentions of those surrounding you, even when they mean to help.
The torches help with light sensitivity – as afore mentioned – and will show you how it feels when all the lights around you feel too bright and lurid.
The random bursts of loud music directly in your ear should allow you to begin to understand how loud or sudden noises feel, as well as really helping to create a sense of panic and pain, and not being able to control it.
All these things are just one way I could think of to create a makeshift meltdown experience for anyone curious. Of course, it isn’t quite right because a meltdown is all happening internally, and no one else around you understands what is going on. You can’t rip off the headphones and coat and tell everyone to leave you alone. Instead you might be in the middle of the high street, trying to bring home groceries by yourself, and people around you will be confused and trying to talk to you or touch you, adding more and more stimuli when you can’t even manage what is already there. You may have been slightly on edge but otherwise okay, and then a car honks its horn at you and sends you into this state where everything is too much and nothing around you makes any sense.
Or it could be the case that you weren’t able to sleep properly the previous night due to a teacher hinting at a surprise test and you are now in the queue to get lunch at school. You have to eat something because otherwise you won’t have enough energy to manage your next lesson without having a meltdown, but you were let out of class late because the teacher didn’t notice the time, so now you are near the back of the queue and have to wait. All around you people are talking, laughing, screaming, eating, walking, scraping plates, serving food, using tills, pushing each other, knocking into you, opening doors, moving chairs, throwing things, putting things in the bins, etc. Eventually it gets to the point where you have your eyes screwed up, face pointed towards the floor and fists balled, all in an effort to try to calm yourself down. You can’t cover your ears because then people will come over and start touching you and asking you questions that you won’t be able to understand or respond to, nor can you put on headphones because they are banned in your school. So instead you either have to try and manage it by yourself, or leave the canteen, not eat lunch and spend your next lesson more focused on not having a meltdown, rather than whatever it is you are supposed to be learning.
I hope this helped you to understand what it feels like, and please don’t actually do this, as it will be really unpleasant and possibly just downright dangerous. If you are older, have a health condition or are under 18 then especially do not do this because that would be exceedingly stupid. I hasten to add that I am not writing this hoping for pity. I don’t want pity, I just want people to understand and to talk to autistic friends, family and colleagues about their experiences and how you can be a good ally. Meltdowns are caused by external stimuli more than anything, so being aware of things that your autistic buddy might find challenging and warning them in advance, or even helping them cope in whatever way they need to is invaluable. Having a meltdown is a deeply unpleasant feeling, and unless you live in your local Amish community, an occurrence is a very real possibility for the vast majority of the time spent outside your safe place – wherever that may be. So, let’s all be considerate of each other and give some thought as to what could help those around us, especially when it’s something you can’t hope to ever completely experience!
Thank you for reading,