Sensory overload is one of those things where you don’t really know what it’s like until it happens to you. Sometimes, you don’t know you’ve experienced sensory overload until it’s over. It can be truly terrifying at times.
Sensory overload takes place when a person’s bodily senses become over stimulated. This can happen because of the environment that they’re in. For autistic people, sensory overload is extremely common. Although, sensory overload is prevalent in other neurodivergent people. It can be triggered by a number of things, even things that appear typical for everyday life.
Growing up, I always hated shopping. We would go, and I would become very stressed out, very quickly. As I started to go places on my own, I began to realise how absolutely necessary it was to wear headphones. I quickly began to realise that if I was going somewhere on my own, I wasn’t going anywhere without my headphones. I take my headphones everywhere, even if I don’t end up using them.
It’s only as I’ve become an adult that I’ve come to realise why headphones are a necessity for me. And because of this, I’ve realised why I became so stressed as a child when shopping.
The necessity of headphones
The truth is: with headphones, I can control what I can hear. I’m not subjected to noises out of my control. To noises that are too loud, too close, etc. Not only this but I get very overwhelmed by large crowds of people. When wearing headphones, I can slip through a crowd without much anxiety. Without my headphones, I can’t control what I hear, the noise becomes extremely overwhelming. It can even be painful at times.
When I was younger, I didn’t understand this. I wasn’t properly able to communicate what I was feeling or experiencing. Instead, I would become irritable. I felt increasingly and physically tight in my own skin until I got home.
Recently, my headphones broke. I had lost my life support for venturing into the great outside. I was distraught, I could only shop in local corner shops. But even then, the noise was too much. It was too overwhelming, and I would return home flustered and upset.
So, I bought myself new headphones and I cannot describe the genuine relief that flooded me when they arrived. But this whole realisation of how much I’m impacted got me thinking; how common is this for other people? Especially other autistic people?
As I said, many people can experience sensory overload, however it is more common amongst autistic people. It is surprising how much people’s lives are affected by everyday things.
Intrigued by this, I decided to do some digging on the back of my own experiences of being an autistic person and experiencing sensory overload. I soon discovered that experiences of sensory overload vary from person to person. This makes it difficult for people to understand what its like. Especially if they’ve never experienced it themselves.
What can trigger a sensory overload?
As mentioned, sensory overload can be triggered by anything. All it takes is for the bodily senses to become overstimulated. For myself, some of these triggers include being around large groups of people. The general feeling of anxiety can also be a trigger. It can cause me to spiral. I find loud, unexpected and overlapping noises can also trigger sensory overload.
As part of my mission to learn and educate, I asked fellow autistic people to describe some experiences.
Triggers of other autistic people
To begin with, I asked them what triggered a sensory overload for them. Like me, a lot of people answered that large groups of people and too much noise can kickstart an overload. However, I learnt about some other triggers; such as the lack of personal space, being touched (even by friends or family). Some people found that others not being on time when arrangements have been made can also be a trigger.
Other triggers included change, for example, plans that have suddenly changed. Another example is an object being moved, like a room being rearranged. Other people have found that a sensory overload can be triggered when they’ve been given too many tasks to do at once, or too much information. They found that it causes their brain to be overloaded with information, which scrambled their ability to ‘make sense of things’. Others find intrusive thoughts, such as depressive, anxious or aggressive thoughts (which are troubling for anybody) can also trigger a sensory overload.
All of these different triggers begin to paint a small picture of how a sensory overload can be triggered. Each contributor to a sensory overload vary from person to person. People may experience similar triggers, however how they experience them is different. Realising this is such an important factor when discussing sensory overload and autism (and other neurodivergencies). Autistic people are wonderfully different, as are our experiences of things. In fact, everybody is wonderfully different. The world would be a very boring place if that wasn’t so!
What is sensory overload like?
Leading on from this, the experience of sensory overload itself is extremely varied. It can include an array of feelings, behaviours and actions. But for many, they can unanimously agree that its horrible. It can be terrifying, especially as you can’t always tell what’s happening until it’s over and it’s too late. It can also be distressing for others to witness, especially because they don’t really know what’s going on and they may not know how to help.
I once experienced sensory overload whilst studying in college. I have never really experienced a full sensory overload in public. I’d previously became very stressed and flustered in public before, many times, but I’d never publicly experienced a sensory overload. My brain subconsciously waits until I’m in a safe space, such as home, for it to do its ‘thing’. Other autistic people experience this too, their delay of a reaction. It’s relatively common amongst female autistics due to a phenomenon called masking.
At the time, many of my classmates didn’t realise what was happening. I was stock-still, wide-eyed and staring. I could tell that I was crying but I physically couldn’t move. Words failed to explain what was happening to me. My head was screaming at me, but my body couldn’t respond. I could feel the individual clothes fibres on my skin and it made me feel sick. I could hear the lights humming and suddenly everything was so loud. It was almost as though the noise was electric.
Stock-still and staring
I had quickly gone from the boisterous little madam I am to a deer in the headlights. Luckily, my teacher noticed, so she pulled me out the lesson. She sat me in quiet, dark room and sat with me. There wasn’t much talking, no reassuring shoulder rubs, just the gentle reminder to breathe now and again because I was hyperventilating. This kind of response was exactly what I needed. She sat with me until I was calm and then sent me home to rest; I was exhausted and confused. I was in no shape to return to my lessons. Once or twice I’ve passed out due to a sensory overload, this is because my brain has decided to do the good old ‘turn it off and on again’ trick.
But, this is just one example, just one experience of sensory overload. It’s one of my experiences and I have had similar sensory overloads since. However, as similar as they may be, no sensory overload is the same.
Other autistic people’s experiences of sensory overload
Working from my experience and understanding, I also asked people what sensory overload is like for them. Again, many could relate to my personal experience, but again, experiences were and are very much varied. A lot of people experienced a similar action of the body taking control whilst their mind sits back and watches. This is why many people experiencing sensory overload ‘freeze’, they are physically incapable of moving. Their mind isn’t currently in control of the body, as bodily experiences have become too much for the mind to process. It’s comparable to the ‘fight or flight’ fear response.
Many people also sympathised with the fact that you’re screaming at yourself in your head to ‘act normal’ or to calm down. However, they found that this often helps to fuel the fire. These feelings of intense panic often spiral, too, prolonging the situation at hand. Some people may begin to visually panic. They might flap their hands (however, some neurodivergent people flap their hands when excited). or start hyperventilating. Other people may cry, whimper, scream or speak incoherently. Some people’s speech may become distorted, as though they’re ‘putting on’ a weird voice. This can be because speaking is too much of a struggle. For some, sensory overload can even be physically painful.
For some people, they start to feel sick, their body physically can’t handle what’s going on. Some people actually throw up. I can personally say that when extremely stressed, if somebody even so much as brushes me lightly, it can make me feel like a) I’m either going to punch them (which I never do, I just feel like it) or b) that I’m going to be sick everywhere. And I really do mean everywhere.
Feeling out of control
Others reported feeling that the need to ‘stop’ words or noises. They reported the desire to ‘mute’ the world. The desire to make everything stop because it’s too much to handle. This is obviously a nigh-on-impossible request. But I can’t say I don’t know the feeling. People who aren’t autistic have also felt this way; the need to pause everything momentarily. Unfortunately, for autistic people it can spiral and manifest into a complete shutdown. The feelings of not being in control of yourself as well as your surroundings is petrifying. Especially as you can’t always communicate what’s happening.
These feelings of extreme panic can lead to confusion and irritability. This is because of the intense and overwhelming nature of sensory overload. It is also because of how fast it can become a downwards spiral and you get to sit in the passenger’s seat and watch. Because of this terrifying spiralling, some people hurt themselves. This is out of frustration and/or confusion.
One autistic person commented;
The only way I can describe sensory overload, for me, is as if I was an ant in a crowd of people. I feel small, everything is loud and I am frightened.
Coping with sensory overload
Some autistic people (and other neurodivergent peoples) will sometimes hit or bash their head off things and pull their hair out. Some people hurt themselves in different ways, such as nipping or punching themselves. However, it’s common for an autistic person to target their head when attacking themselves. This is often due to the fact that we can’t and don’t understand what’s happening to us.
I suppose its comparable to slapping the old TV when it isn’t working properly. You hit it to try and get a clearer picture. As you can guess, it ultimately makes things worse. All it does is give you a brilliant headache afterwards (talking from experience here, as well as the experiences of my autistic friends). But we don’t see it as hurting ourselves. It’s an attempt to control or understand the situation, and because we’re able to do these things, we act irrationally. Such as playing Rocky Balboa with our heads.
As you can see, hurting yourself isn’t a healthy nor good coping mechanism. Hurting yourself in anyway isn’t good. Nothing, ultimately, is worth hurting yourself – ever.
Sensory overload tips
So, that in itself got me thinking. How can we get through sensory overload? Again, I decided to ask around and for other people’s experiences. Some people told me that having a ‘sensory survival kit’ was massively helpful, even if they didn’t always need it.
Sensory Survival Kit
People take their survival kits out and about with them, in case things become too overwhelming. Survival kit contents vary from person to person. However, I’ve put together a list of things that you may find useful to put in a sensory survival kit!
- Ear defenders/ plugs/ headphones
- A plush toy or comfort item (a little piece of home is always calming)
- Electronics and chargers
- Cue cards (they’re useful to communicate how you feel)
- Something to fiddle with (there are specific toys made to fiddle with, but some people prefer specific items such as zips)
- Colouring in (which is always a good distraction, for all ages)
- Snacks (always a must-have, wherever you go)
Other helpful things to help cope with sensory overload
However, survival kits aren’t necessarily everybody’s cup of tea. So, I’ve also put together another list of other things people found helpful when experiencing sensory overload.
- Cue cards (always super useful)
- Sitting in a dark and/ or quiet room
- Sitting near an exit, window or door
- Breathing exercises
Different breathing exercises work for different for people. For some, it can help to ground them. It can help them to focus on themselves and the situation at hand. This is especially so for individuals who may be hyperventilating. Having somebody guide you through breathing exercises can really help too. Especially if that person is close to you and understands. Cue cards instructing you on how to do breathing exercises are also helpful when on you’re on your own.
Here’s one helpful example that somebody kindly recommended to me while I was doing some research;
- Exhale only from your mouth, expelling any air that you had stored up
- Next, close your mouth and quietly inhale through your nose. Hold your breath until the count of 4
- After counting to 4, exhale again
- Repeat this process until you feel calm and grounded
(photo by elainebrown82/ Flickr)
When doing breathing exercises, people have found using a Hoberman Sphere is a helpful visual representation of what they’re doing.
They’re a good item to add to your survival kit (if you’re in the middle of putting one together). They’re also super fun to play with and are a colourful distraction if you begin to become overwhelmed!
Where do we go from here?
With all that being said, handling a sensory overload, the experience of a sensory overload, etc, is different. As I’ve said all along, it varies from person to person. This is why I largely believe it’s extremely important to discuss sensory overload. To make people aware of its existence, in case they experience it or somebody around them does.
Some public spaces even have sensory spaces, where people can sit in a relaxing environment, away from the stress. Many recent studies have discussed the wonders of sensory spaces. A study by Gareth Jones notes some fantastic benefits of having sensory spaces in different environments. Click here to read the article. Another fantastic source on how to make spaces more welcoming for autistic people was written by one of our interns! Click here to check it out.
Not only this, but other public spaces have began looking into making their environments more welcoming towards autistic people and those who experience sensory overload. Reducing light levels so that they’re not as bright and intrusive can help make spaces more accessible. Bright lights, as mentioned, can trigger a sensory overload, so dimmer lights are great in promoting accessibility.
Having some knowledge of colour theory and the effects of colour on moods is also useful when designing a sensory friendly space. For example, red is a stimulating colour. Due to this, it may not always be appropriate to use in a calming space. The Optometrists Network has an excellent article about Syntonic Phototherapy, which can be found here. Clashing or too many patterns in one area can also be overwhelming. Smell is also an important sensory trigger, having too many or very strong scents can cause a sensory overload. By avoiding these things, a space can become much more welcoming.
In conclusion, it’s small changes like these that can really make a difference. But firstly, it begins with having knowledge that these changes need to be made. Recognising sensory overload and the triggers that may cause one is an important factor when discussing accessibility. Hopefully this blog has helped to identify some triggers and factors, as well as educate you!
Has this blog been useful? If so, comment below what you’ve learnt!
Please feel free to comment your own experiences, tips and tricks, etc! The more information, the better!