Sensory Overload and… Dishwashing Powder??

Sensory Overload and… Dishwashing Powder??

It has been a few weeks since my last post. I tend to get really excited about a certain idea or activity and for awhile I’ll be all about it. Then my interest will just drop and I’ll find something else to distract me. I didn’t want this blog to be one of those things, as it got such a positive response and seemed to help some people. I’ve been waiting to be inspired by something, but nothing came. So I’m just going to dive in with a big one – Sensory Overload.

I have some visitors this weekend, my sister and her TWO autistic children. What could be better than one Autismo? An entire house of them! My nephew just turned 8, and he is a whirlwind of activity, noise, movement and chatter. My niece is the opposite – quiet, shy and nervous.

They arrived shortly after midday and, like the song, they came in like a wrecking ball. My nephew’s latest obsession is (wait for it)… Dishwashing powder. Not just any dishwashing powder – Finish tablets (especially the one with the power ball and rinse aid built in). I swear to you, I am not a corporal shill. This is legitimately what he is fixated with right now. He watches Finish ads and tells everyone he meets all about the tablets and shows them videos on YouTube. It is hilarious – at first. After hour 6 of incessant chatter about dishwashing powder, anyone’s patience would start to wear.

Our plans were simple enough, we were first going to check out some display homes to get some ideas for houses (my nephew kept himself occupied inspecting the dishwashers) and then afterward, dinner at Taco Bill.

I was nervous because usually I can only handle one activity a day. Two means overload. Three is not possible without assistance.

By the time we got to the restaurant I’m starting to feel the effects of social and sensory activity beyond my normal limits. I’m not sure whether the ambient noise level at the restaurant was actually set to “roaring” but to my ears, it was. After so much activity during the day and listening to the constant chatter of my nephew and to a lesser extent, my niece, I was definitely feeling the strain of all the extra sensory input. I became extra sensitive to sensory information. I was hyper aware of all the movement in the busy restaurant, nervous at being in people’s way (WHY this is a thing for me, I do not know… I am terrified of blocking someone’s path or being in the way. When in public I try to take up as least space as possible, and in busy shopping centres I weave my way around people so they aren’t inconvenienced), and I was getting super irritated and anxious.

My nephew’s voice is difficult for my sensitive ears to handle at the best of times. He is hypo-sensory, meaning he needs extra stimulation to hear and feel things. He craves sensory input. I imagine it like he’s living in a bubble, sounds are muted and the bubble protects him from feeling tactile objects the way the rest of do. I am the complete opposite. I am hyper-sensory, I hear/feel/see everything and am extremely sensitive. I can hear if an electrical device is on in the room (like if my phone is charging). I could smell a friend’s mold problem in their house that nobody else could smell. I can’t handle deodorants to be sprayed near me, and can’t breathe when women wearing too much perfume stand near me. It hurts to have someone touch me, stroking my skin is like a form of torture. My own voice in my ears sounds loud, so I speak quietly and softly. My nephew, on the other hand, can’t tell how loud he is being so he yells most of the time. When he feels like he isn’t being heard, he yells louder. And his inflection is all wrong. He places emphasis on the wrong parts of words. For example, tonight he said “I need to put my iPad on charge.” With his tone and inflection, this is how it came out:

“I NEED TO put my iPad on chARGE”

You can imagine how a hypo sensory and a hyper sensory in the same room might be difficult for the hyper sensory. I love him to pieces and I would not change him, but being around him for extended periods of time wears me out and often causes severe overload.

At the restaurant I was starting to get very antsy. I needed to leave. Unfortunately my sister was still eating and finishing her drink. Her son’s educational lecture on Finish dishwashing powder was starting to grate my nerves, and the noise and movement in the restaurant was making my head spin. The noise hurt my ears and the movement hurt my eyes. I got cranky but luckily I was able to refrain from snapping at people. I watched impatiently as my sister slowly sipped her drink through her straw, enjoying every last drop. I stared at the glass with contempt, knowing that the amount of liquid remaining in that glass equalled the amount of time until we could leave. I fidgeted and shifted in my chair. The dull roar of the restaurant echoed in my ears. Every movement of every person in that room was noticed by my hyper awareness. I tried closing my eyes and relaxing in my chair, but it didn’t work. My limbs ached, the wooden chair hurt my skin, my back hurt.


Oh my god she’s finished. I nearly jumped out of my skin in my hurry to get out of that place. I rushed out the door to the cool, refreshing air outside and the welcome quiet. Until…

“DID YOU KNOW thAT Finish tablets actually have the POWERball inSIDE the tablet?”

We piled into the car, the kids bringing their outside voices into the limited enclosed space which felt like daggers being forced into my ear drums. I asked them to use their quiet voices and my sister tried to play quiet games with them. Finally, we were home.

I am now in the quiet comfort of my dark and still bedroom, under my weighted blanket, recovering from the sensory overload. My weighted blanket feels AMAZING when I put it on while overloaded. It’s difficult to describe. It’s like a heavy hug that relieves you of your confusion and anxiety and quells the screaming activity inside your mind, and finally, you can relax.

The longer I have spent overloaded, the longer it takes for me to calm down. Longer still if I don’t use my weighted blanket. It’s been about an hour now and I am feeling almost back to normal. If you have autistic kids or know people with ASD, always make sure that after any kind of social/sensory activity, they get some time to destress and unwind before moving on to the next activity, ideally somewhere quiet and relaxing 😉


Overloaded! Social overload firsthand.

Overloaded! Social overload firsthand.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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. ❤