I had another topic planned for today, about the fantastic response I have had so far to my blog – including many kind words from old school friends who recounted memories of me from those days, but I’ve had a busy day so I’m feeling overloaded. I figured what better time to explain what it’s like for an Autistic person during sensory overload!
Today was nothing out of the ordinary for a neurotypical person, I had a visitor for the afternoon. I spent several hours having a conversation with this friend, followed by a gentle walk with my two dogs.
Easy! You say. No! Bad neurotypical!
While I had a lovely time that I wouldn’t change for the world, I am definitely feeling the strain of interacting on a social level for an extended period of time. I’ve put myself to bed to have a rest as I feel exhausted. I knew it was coming when my eyes began to feel heavy and I started yawning. The tiredness fell over me like a heavy blanket being draped over my shoulders. My eyes began to unfocus, and I had trouble keeping them focused. They began to glaze over and my mind wandered. I tried to fight the fatigue – I never want to be rude and have the other person feel like I am getting bored of their company – but fighting it is useless. My friend’s words were sounding like a foreign language, even though minutes prior I had no trouble understanding her. My mind scrambled to put together the words and understand what was being said. Instead of responding with a coherent sentence I began nodding and “uh-huh”ing. I struggled to finish the conversation and went into my study to have a break, alone.
Luckily my friend understands my Autism and was unfazed by my behaviour. She busied herself with her phone, doing some tasks while I went to the sanctity of my computer. Technology and rest from human interaction is my way of relaxing and refocusing myself, so I spent a few restful minutes on my computer. After ten minutes, I returned and was able to continue. It wasn’t long however, until I began to feel the effects again. I explained to my friend that I had to rest, and thankfully she understood.
I am now in bed and overloaded. What is being overloaded? According to the Wikipedia definition: “Sensory overload occurs when one or more of the body’s senses experiences over-stimulation from the environment.”
As Autism is a sensory processing disorder, this happens OFTEN. For different individuals on the wide spectrum of ASD, it can be caused by a wide variety of things and happen over seemingly nothing to a neurotypical person.
But what does it feel like? Right now, I am having major issues concentrating. I am often stopping and staring at my phone screen, forgetting what I am doing and the point I am making. It’s not so bad right now as I can scroll up and read what I have written previously and remember the point I was trying to make, but what if I was talking to someone right now? I can’t scroll up during a verbal conversation with someone, so when talking during sensory overload I tend to trail off mid-sentence and completely forget what I was talking about. This can happen several times in a SINGLE SENTENCE! It’s frustrating. I feel confused and my brain is foggy. My eyes are blinking a lot because I am so tired. I am irritable and grumpy – if someone was to talk to me right now I would probably snap at them or simply not answer them. I need peace and quiet.
During sensory overload, everything is intensified. Noises sound louder. Light is brighter. I am easily confused. Repeating sounds or noises like a window blind banging in the breeze is intolerable. What normally may be somewhat tolerable for me is now seemingly right in my face, my ears, my head. Not only am I dealing with my brain fog and confusion but WHAT IS THAT NOISE?! My blind is actually banging right now and it is driving me crazy. I should fix it. I have the urge to yell at it.
Back to my confusion… I lost my train of thought. All I want to do is sleep right now. It’s started raining outside, it sounds beautiful. It’s very calming. I love the sound of rain. The blind is banging again. More irritation.
You may be able to tell how jumbled my thoughts are, and how any outside noise or distraction will violently yank me out of my sleepy state of confusion. Luckily, I recognised the signs early and took myself off to bed, where I can lay here alone and in the dark and take as long as my system needs to calm down. There is no set time to recover – it varies. It will depend on the amount of time I spent overloaded, what I was doing to cause it and how early or late I realised it was happening. The biggest thing for me is how quickly I act on my Overload Plan. I have capitalised it because I feel it is important and that every Autistic should have one. My personal one is:
- Go somewhere quiet. This is usually my bedroom. I like to have my quiet place to be the same every time. I like the comforting feeling of knowing I can relax there with no surprises, no sudden pop ins, no interaction, no noises.
- Go under weighted blanket. Depending on how severe my overload is, I may skip this step. Sometimes just my normal bed blankets will be fine, but I have to be under something. For me, the more overloaded = the more weight needed. At my most severe state of being overloaded (the point before the dreaded Meltdown), a 70kg person laying over my chest instantly calmed me.
- Take phone/iPad. This is very important. Without something to read/browse/occupy my thoughts, I feel panicked and it makes me feel worse. I need something to focus on. This may not be the case for everyone, but it works for me. I usually browse Reddit and look at pictures of dogs (dogs are my happy place). Without this important step, the other steps wouldn’t work as quickly.
It will take some time, but eventually I will start to feel the energy coming back. I will begin to focus more. My mind clears. I feel less irritable and frustrated. I begin to relax and feel a bit more clear. The weight is lifted from my eyes, my shoulders… I start to feel like a normal(ish) human being again.
It is so important that those early warning signs of overload are recognised. Did you recognise them? For me they were my eyes drooping, yawning, blank staring, eyes unable to focus. My body may have slumped due to the weight and tiredness I felt and I started forgetting what I was saying mid-sentence. I was visibly confused and out of it.
If you are the parent of an autistic child, your child will have his or her own set of signs that you will need to learn so you can identify it early. Make an Overload Plan so you and your child know exactly what to do to calm them down before we venture into dreaded Meltdown territory.
If you are autistic yourself, it is perhaps more difficult to recognise sensory overload in yourself then it is for a parent to recognise it in their child. We are often not that aware of ourselves or our behaviour to realise that we need a break and a rest. I sometimes push myself too far, further and further into overload, simply because I’m too busy or distracted by what I’m doing to recognise the signs. This is especially the case if I’m playing a high stress video game. Often I’m so immersed in that game that I will refuse to acknowledge that I need a break. But I like to think of it this way: the quicker I recover, the less time I am wasting being overloaded and in bed and I can then go back to having fun!
I hope this has been helpful. Writing while overloaded was a challenge! Time for a well deserved nap, I socialised well today! 😀
Edit: on reflection I realised I should clarify that my sensory overload today was a result of social overload, therefore my symptoms were different to other kinds of sensory overstimulation like going to a busy and noisy shopping centre. I will address these different types of sensory overload and the effects they have on me in future blog entries. To ensure I give an authentic and accurate description, I will wait until I am experiencing them to write about them. ❤