Sensory Overload

In my post, Atypical Sensory Processing 101, I mentioned that with the autistic/SPD brain the things that get filtered through our sensory gates are an amalgam of relevant and irrelevant, and I described all of the processing of these inputs that our brains do AT ONCE. These sensory triggers can very easily lead to sensory 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, the sounds and feelings that I mentioned experiencing as I was typing–the dogs barking, B biting his fingernail, the air from the air vent blowing on me, etc. are not things that I’m particularly sensitive to, they just are. What I mean by this, is that while yes, I’m absolutely experiencing them as described, they aren’t stressors to me, and I’ve grown accustomed to being bombarded by this constant influx of sensory information over time.

Actually, I hadn’t realized until recent years that noticing all of these sounds and sensations while being completely enthralled in a separate activity was atypical. I thought that everyone experienced this heightening of sensory input.

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. It can prove to 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 paralyzed. If sensory overload isn’t addressed through certain calming techniques and supports that I have in place, then it can lead to meltdowns and/or shutdowns, which I will talk about later on (here).

There are a number of things that can increase the chances of experiencing a 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.

For me personally, I experience overload much more readily if I’m tired or hungry.  One experience especially that can lead me to experience overload if I don’t have supports in place, is being in a grocery or department store. Between the horrid fluorescent lights, bright white floors, shelves of items surrounding me, a large number of people walking and talking at once, the smell of the perfume on the lady in front of me at the checkout, and everything in between, shopping can prove to be a nightmare. I’ve honestly spent countless times going into a store, knowing what I wanted, and being so overwhelmed by sensory input flying at me, that I become disoriented and end up walking in circles around the store for an hour. I really can’t even tell you how many times that has happened. I can’t focus on what I need to buy, even if I have a list, can’t verbalize to ask for help if I need a particular item, and just wander around aimlessly as though I’m walking through a thick, loud, unruly fog.

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 couple of them:

1. “Carly’s Café – Experience Autism Through Carly’s Eyes”

Carly Fleischmann is a nonverbal 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. 

2. “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, 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.

3. “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 everyone on the spectrum. But I do hope that this post, and these videos, give you a glimpse into sensory sensitivities and sensory overload.

For some of us on the spectrum, sensory sensitivities may be milder or more intense than others, depending on the day, situation, etc. The same goes for those of us with SPD. 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.

More to come on adapting our environments and the creation of sensory diets

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