For many autistic people, sensory overload is a daily occurrence. Over the course of the day there is a build up of stimulation of the senses. There comes a time in the day (usually mid to late afternoon) where your body gently (or not so gently) warns you that it’s time to stop.
Sensory overload is defined as “when one or more of the body’s senses experiences over-stimulation from the environment.” Autistic people are especially prone to experiencing sensory overload. Sudden noise, lurid colours and bright lights are just a few examples of-
Sorry, I’m having difficulty concentrating because some seagulls on our roof have decided this precise moment would be perfect to squawk and screech at each other.
Where was I? Oh yes, sensory overload. It doesn’t just have to be loud, annoying seagulls. The stress of having to cope with all the senses battling for attention builds up until you experience “overload”.
This can occur anywhere, anytime – all it takes is one trigger, which could be a tone of voice or sudden movement. As a result, autistic people have to be hyper-aware of their surroundings in order to avoid a public meltdown.
My sensory overload manifests itself in a constant headache (3 years straight and counting…) and heavy, dry eyes. I know when I’ve pushed myself too far when I start to feel dizzy and see spots on the ground. Sensory overload can usually be remedied with a gentle evening and a full night’s sleep – I sometimes think of it as like a reset.
I have managed to find some coping mechanisms to deal with the daily sensory overload that comes from my college day and my journey home on the bus and train. I try to re-focus my 5 senses: first, I find a quiet, safe place to calm down. I sit down with my back straight against the back of the chair, or sit on the floor with my back against the wall. I close my eyes and listen to music. I go through phases where certain songs calm me down better than others. It used to be Blur (specifically ‘Charmless Man’) but at the moment it’s ‘Almost There’ from Princess and the Frog.
If you think that someone else is experiencing sensory overload the best way to deal with it is to be direct with them. Personally, it’s too late to ask me questions as I lose my ability to communicate effectively when I’m in distress. I need someone to tell me, rather than ask me, to leave the room or to sit down or to go home.
Compassion and directions are best: for example, my English teacher might tell me to leave the classroom for 5 minutes if she sees me struggling in a difficult sensory activity (like watching The Tempest Opera on full volume…). Recognising the signs and identifying the triggers are the best way to deal with sensory overload.
Your Autistic Friend.