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Sensory Overload

by Sally Willbanks
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Sensory Overload

Last week I asked the following question of autistic people on Instagram:


What does sensory overload feel like?


These are some of the responses I received:


“Like the world is spinning in so many directions.”


“Chaotic, like I can’t take in anymore or I could explode!  Each ability quits functioning…”


“Like I’m a coke bottle that’s been shaken up.”


“Agitation, bombarded, too loud, too fast, too much, fight, flight, shut down.”


“My mind going blank, my vision gets blurry, it’s like everything stops around you.”


“Like wearing 3D glasses in a movie that isn’t meant to be 3D.  Hyper aware of everything.”


“You feel and hear everything.  Every seam, every tag.  It consumes you.  It’s all you can think about.”


“Sight: blurry

Hearing: like when our head is underwater

Confusion.  Pain.”


“You no longer have control.  Your mind is disconnected.  Fear.”


“It can be mild where I have to sit still for 45 minutes to so bad that my head feels like a shaken closed can of soda about to burst and every sensory input hurts.”


“Like Superman’s kryptonite.”


It makes me stop functioning (I can’t think, talk, see, move, I can’t do ANYTHING properly.  It’s like a huge, serious painful interference that affects my state of being, my breathing, heartrate, headaches etc.”


“It’s completely overwhelming, then …your nervous system is disrupted and you feel angry and off balance and sick…after years and years now of that, adrenal fatigue and chronic health issues.”


Autistic people can suffer from sensory overload because their brains are much more receptive to sensory input. They have very delicate sensory systems, which means their senses of touch, sight, sound, smell and taste, as well as their vestibular, proprioceptive and interoceptive systems can be affected.  Most neurotypical people receive sensory feedback and their brains are able to block out the sensory information that is not needed (for example, the sound of a neighbor’s lawn mower).  Autistic people have trouble tamping down the sensory information that does not pertain to the task at hand, so even the simplest tasks can become overwhelming.


Here is an example for you:


A neurotypical person is at the grocery store self-check-out counter.  They are scanning their groceries and placing them into their bags.  There are noises, sights and smells, but they are not important, so they are tuned out.  They shopper finishes up, scans their bank cards, waits for the person who has bumped into them to pass, and then they leave the store.


An autistic person is at the same grocery store self-check-out counter.  They are scanning their groceries, and the beep of the scanner is loud but ok.  However, the scanners on either side of them are also beeping.  The fluorescent lights are not only too bright, but they are giving off this awful humming noise that is impossible to tune out, and the shopper next to them has a baby in their cart who is fussing.  There is an elderly lady nearby who is wearing overpowering florally perfume and she is talking loudly to her husband who has slight body odor.  This mixes with the smell of fresh bread.  This is all getting very overwhelming.  The autistic person manages to scan their bank card, and a dog outside the store starts barking and a car honks its horn.  As the autistic shopper is leaving, a person bumps into them, and it is all too much – sensory overload has set in.


This week I asked the following question:


What do you do to help with sensory overload?  What can others do?


These are some of the answers I received:


“Headphones, music, being in a quiet dark room”


“When we are out, if it is possible, bring me to a quiet, low temp, dark room and bring me some water, otherwise bring me home as soon as possible.  If we are home I have to recover alone, in quiet, low light, preferably bedroom.”


“Noise dampening headphones.  I got mine from a sporting goods store.  They’re the same kind used at shooting ranges.  Others can leave me alone.”


“Get me to a dark, quiet space.  I like my bed, under the covers.”


“Others can have patience with me, give me space and let me tune out when I need to.”


Sensory overload can make everyday tasks utterly exhausting for autistic people.  In reading the responses to my original question asking what it feels like, I imagine sensory overload can be absolutely debilitating.  So, let’s listen to the needs of autistic people, and support and respect them when they are in sensory overload. It’s the least we can do.

by Sally Willbanks


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