As mentioned in my last post on Sensory Processing, with the autistic brain the things that get filtered through our sensory gates are an amalgam of relevant and irrelevant and autistic brains often process an array of inputs all at once. These sensory triggers can very easily lead to overload.
While this type of atypical sensory processing can be correlated to sensory sensitivities, not all of this sensory information will trigger such sensitivities. For instance, all of the sensory input that I might be experiencing are not necessarily things that I’m particularly sensitive to, they just are. What I mean by this, is that while yes, I’m absolutely experiencing them, they often aren’t stressors to me, and I’ve grown accustomed to being bombarded by this constant influx of sensory information over time.
Since, as an autistic person, my filtering system seems to let in both the important and unimportant information, I have to consistently and consciously decide whether or not this input is relevant.
This can prove to be extremely taxing on me and can be especially difficult when I am faced with those things which are sensory triggers for me. If I don’t address the triggers, I can get extremely anxious, my tolerance for other sensory input and stressors is greatly diminished, so I become easily agitated, and my body starts to react not only emotionally, but physically as well. I get headaches, my heart races, my eyes become more sensitive to light, my muscles tense, and so on and so forth.
I become overloaded and overwhelmed. I can’t think of or focus anything else except for every single sensation coursing through my body, all of my thoughts run together, everything around me becomes both literally and figuratively blurry, sounds, feelings, etc. are all hugely amplified, and I feel frozen. If sensory overload isn’t addressed through certain calming techniques and supports that someone has in place, it can lead to meltdowns and/or shutdowns.
There are a number of things that can increase the chances of experiencing sensory overload. If someone is sick, stressed out from an exam, meeting, or other important events, if they’re hungry, or if they’ve gotten little sleep the night before. All of these things and more can lead to an increase in the likelihood of experiencing sensory overload.
There have been a few video simulations floating around the internet that try to capture what experiencing sensory overload can feel like.
Here are a few of them:
- “Carly’s Café – Experience Autism Through Carly’s Eyes”
Carly Fleischmann is a non speaking autistic woman, advocate, blogger, and YouTube talk show host. She is phenomenal. This video is AMAZING and really captures all of the little things that can make their way through an autistic person’s sensory gates/filters.
- “What it’s like to walk down a street when you have autism or an ASD”
This video by Craig Thompson, an autistic man, and YouTuber. While I’m not necessarily a fan of the fact that on his YouTube page, he says he “suffers” from autism and he uses person-first language (I do think that every autistic person is entitled to using whatever language they wish to describe themselves and their experiences, however), I do think that this simulation video is a good depiction of what it’s like to walk down the street as an autistic person on a given day.
- “Sensory Overload”
This video was created as part of Mark Jonathan Harris’ and Marhsa Kinder’s “Interacting with Autism”, and is a good representation of sensory overload.
Note: These are only made to be examples of how one may experience sensory sensations, leading to overload. They aren’t intended to be a depiction of the experiences of every autistic person. But I do hope that this post, and these videos, give you a glimpse into sensory sensitivities and sensory overload.
For some of us who are autistic, sensory sensitivities may be milder or more intense than others, depending on the day, situation, etc. Not all of us experience the same sensory sensitivities or triggers in the same ways. Some of us internalize reactions to sensory stimuli and become agitated or withdrawn, while others scream cry, cover their ears, etc. Each of these reactions can lead to one experiencing a meltdown and/or shutdown. Because we are reacting naturally to not-so-natural stimuli or stimuli that are atypical, our reactions may not appear to be rational to those around us. People may think we’re being intentionally difficult when in reality we’re just trying to cope. They may wonder how they can fix these reactions, but rather than simply focusing on fixing our reactions to sensory sensitivities, we should focus on how we can create environments and have supports in place so that things are less of a trigger to us.