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“Stimulating” isn’t Always a Good Thing

This post isn’t going to be about stimming or fidget cubes, that’s a topic for another day. I want to talk about something that’s a little less mainstream but, in my opinion, more important.

Parents, friends, compatriots, I need you to understand that being overstimulated is absolute hell.

Overstimulation manifests in a lot of ways for a lot of people, but the core of the sensation is the same for everyone who experiences it: there is Too Much Happening and I am Starting to Shut Down. Overstimulation, or Sensory Overload, can happen in a lot of ways, but here are some places I’ve experienced it:

  • Concert
  • Movie
  • Stage Presentation
  • Parties
  • My own Bat Mitzvah
  • Public thoroughfares
  • Being in class after it was supposed to end
  • PEP RALLIES

Now, the difference between screwing around and science is writing it down, so my hypothesis is that sensory overload happens to me during prolonged exposure to large groups producing significant amounts of sound with no way to remove myself. Other people talking loudly for “too long” seems to be what sets it off. (I was only ever overloaded in class once, when the professor would not release us for a good ten minutes after we were supposed to leave to finish explaining the assignment. Fun times.)

The good news about sensory overload is that it’s the worst when you’re young, but the bad news is that it never truly goes away. The other problem is that it’s very hard to explain just what you’re experiencing.

Here’s what’s basically going on: people with autism experience every single sensory signal individually. Every smell, every sound, every color is an individual experience, and all of them combined create a scene. The issue lies in the mental work it takes to compose the scene with all the signals; past a certain point, it becomes too much to handle, and the “stay in the moment” brain starts to shut down rather than properly process the situation. We get tired, we get overwhelmed, we get cranky, and the input does not stop. Remember the chocolate wrapping scene on I Love Lucy? It’s like that, but without a laugh track.

It is for me, anyway.

Like I said, it’s different for everyone; the best I can compare it to is like an internal being wound up too tight, and every sound and voice is just one more twist before it snaps. (Translation: Too much, and I’ll start crying. I don’t want to, but whatever function of my brain that deals with fight or flight doesn’t know how else to respond.) The only way to “unwind” is to remove myself from the situation and go somewhere calm and quiet, so I can give my senses a chance to “breathe”.

Hear me now, from personal experience: Forcing yourself or your child through it does not work. It will not help with ‘getting used to it”; if it’s too much, it’s too much, and whatever that experience was will probably cause some distress the next time you try to go through it.

I do have some more good news: there’s ways to catch yourself being overstimulated before it gets to the breaking point. Here’s just a few I’ve noticed:

  • Becoming quieter/not talking
  • Becomes impatient
  • sudden disinterest in topic at hand/refusal to engage with what’s happening
  • increased irritability
  • tense body language: squared shoulders, clenched jaw, making and unmaking fists, rubbing arms
  • difficulty sitting still/squirming
  • even the best at making eye contact will suddenly stop
  • fidgeting with a pencil/angry shaking of leg or tapping on desk
  • looking for an escape route (IMPORTANT: this one’s usually the sign it’s getting bad, at least for me)

If you do catch yourself or somebody with autism doing these things, it might be a sign to get out of whatever’s happening and to a place with less stimulation.  Find a quiet room and just sit. Have a glass of water if it helps. You don’t need to talk, you don’t need to explain yourself, just breathe. Once you’ve had a chance to wind down, decide if you’re ready to get back out there.

(Parents: your kids are not doing this to spite you. Do not blame them for what they’re experiencing. They are frightened and confused; yelling makes it worse. If your child needs quiet time, please let them have it, I promise it will make things easier. Sensory overload is the worst when you’re young; it will get easier as they get older.)

I realize by this point I’ve built up sensory overload to be a bit of a boogieman, but there are ways to combat it. I do have a few suggestions myself, such as:

  • Identify a room that could be a safe retreat in case of potential overload (listen, nobody’s gonna question you suddenly having to use the bathroom)
  • check ahead of time how long you’re going to be at the event – having the right amount of emotional energy prepared can save you a lot of trouble
  • Wait outside if there’s a delay in leaving
  • stick to groups of friends you know
  • Going to a movie that might be Too Much? Pick an end seat. Trust me.
  • WATER. Drink water.
  • Listening to music helps me unwind if I’m feeling overwhelmed. Find a stimulus that helps you and try to keep it with you.

The happy fact is that in many cases, sensory overload becomes rarer with age. The brain refines its skills and has an easier time processing what’s happening. But to my autistic readers: if it does happen, don’t be so hard on yourself. Your brain is telling you it’s had too much; do your best to take care of it, and yourself. You’re doing fine.

(Okay, next week we’ll talk about fidget cubes.)

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