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Sensory overload

Sensory overload is becoming a commonly used term, and not just in groups of neurodivergent people. In this article, I’m going to talk briefly about the sensory systems humans have, and then talk to you about how I experience sensory overload as an autistic person. 

I should start by clarifying that sensory processing challenges are not only experienced by autistic people, but when I write about mine it is from within the context that I am autistic. You might not be autistic, but still have sensory processing challenges and so relate to much of what I write.

Most of us have been taught we have 5 senses: hearing, seeing, touching, smelling and tasting. In the past couple of years I’ve learned that humans actually have 7 senses. A good webpage to learn about this is The Seven Senses, published by SPD Australia. I’ll summarise briefly according to my understanding, but  please visit their page to read a full explanation (clicking the link will open a new window).

This article will be longer than usual for my writing, for which I apologise as I know some people find long articles difficult to process. I have broken it into clearly defined sections so you can read it a bit at a time if you need to, or skip sections that don’t interest you. If you already know a fair bit about our seven senses you might like to skip down to the heading “My Experience”.

The seven senses summary

Auditory System:
Hearing relies not just on our ear physically picking up and sending sounds to the brain, but also on our brain interpreting the information in ways we can meaningfully use, and on our ability to mentally process, remember, recall, and action the information received. There are many ways auditory challenges can occur, not only to do with the actual hearing of sound, and many ways auditory sensitivity can become evident.

Visual System:
Simplistically, we use our visual system to see things, though this happens through an incredibly complex series of neurological reactions. People can be hypersensitive (over-responsive) or hyposensitive (under-responsive) to visual input. These sensitivities can be caused by a variety of challenges ranging from ability to discern objects in a group, to tracking movement, to trouble distinguishing shapes, to seeing a small part in a larger object, and many more.

Tactile System:
Not just about touching, but also about being touched, feeling pressure, how we experience pain and temperature, and how we perceive what our body is doing at any given moment. People with tactile system challenges can be extremely responsive or can be extremely under responsive to touch, pain, temperature changes, and stimulus that should help regulate their movement and co-ordination.

Olfactory System:
Smell! We often assume the sense of smell is pretty simple, but it is so important and influences us more than we realise, having significant impacts on our emotions, memory, behaviour and thoughts. Sensitivity to smells can be very problematic and distracting, and under sensitivity can be dangerous.

Gustatory System:
Our sense of taste works in partnership with our sense of smell, and is influenced by perception of texture and temperature. Challenges caused by taste sensitivities may impact on a persons health and safety, along with having social implications.

Vestibular System:
“The vestibular sense is important for development of balance, coordination, eye control, attention, being secure with movement and some aspects of language development.” (quote source) It relies on our senses of sight, sound and touch. Challenges with the vestibular system can be behind some of those stereotypical autistic sensory seeking behaviours like spinning, rocking and bouncing, as well as an aversion to those movements. Vestibular challenges can also be behind awkward or clumsy movement  and fear of physical activities like bike riding and other sports.

Proprioceptive System:
The simplest way I can describe this one is to say it is our body’s way of knowing where we are in the space around us and keeping track of what we are doing and how we are moving. Understanding proprioception a little was life changing in understanding myself, how my body moves and why I have some of the challenges I do in karate and have had with clumsiness and judging my own abilities. I’m not going to try to explain how it all works, because I’ll probably just confuse us all, but here is a link to the SPDA page that gives more information: http://www.spdaustralia.com.au/the-proprioceptive-system/

So, now that we’ve looked at the sensory systems we have, onto the purpose of writing this article! I want to share with you how sensory challenges and sensory overload impact my life and how they feel to me as an autistic adult. 

My Experience

I’m going to give you some examples from everyday places I go. I’ve tried to keep it not too long and complicated. There are so many more examples I could talk about…. but I’ve tried to keep it short-ish! I’ll tell you what I experience and will specify which of my senses is experiencing challenges in those settings.

At home:

(In this section I refer to executive function. If you don’t know about EF and want to understand before continuing to read please visit Cynthia’s blog >> here << for information)

Because I, as well as most other members of my household, experience challenges with our executive function our house is often messy. The visual clutter starts off a feeling of anxiety for me. Once I am feeling anxious my sensitivity to sound, smell and touch increases as well.

My first response to these sensitivities is to want to be alone. For me that means retreating to my bedroom, in my bed, with a heavy blanket on my legs and with headphones on to listen to music or watch a movie. As you can imagine, with children in the house I can’t just do that whenever I want.

If I don’t have a chance to do something to reduce my anxiety and the resulting increase in sensory sensitivities, both will increase again. When I need to deal with them when other people are around I find it incredibly difficult to maintain the appearance of being calm and communicating in ways society deems as polite. My voice tone will become stressed, and could be interpreted as angry or rude.

When I am overwhelmed I am even more clumsy than usual because visual and sound overwhelm affects my proprioceptive system. This means that if I try to push through the overwhelm without giving myself some regulation and de-stressing time I am more likely to break things and/or hurt myself.

Actually doing some cleaning would, of course, rectify a lot of the problem, but overcoming the overwhelm is not possible while cleaning, or while the house is still messy. A resulting feeling of being stuck in a loop of  {anxiety – overwhelm – inaction } occurs and is frustrating and so, so easy to give in to.

Knowing the inaction will be perceived as laziness is sometimes enough of a motivator to shift me to action despite my overwhelm, but will always result in the need for a longer period of recovery time afterward. The same is true for other external motivators, like the deadline of needing to clean because we will have visitors.

At the shops:

Shopping is not too bad for me….. if I can go alone, there aren’t too many other people shopping, no one bumps into me, no one is wearing a strongly scented perfume or cologne, my trolley doesn’t have a malfunctioning wheel, it is reasonably quiet, the lighting is not too bright or flashing, the temperature is comfortable, I am organised with a list, everything I want is in stock and in its usual place in the store, no store attendants speak to me, the self serve check out is not malfunctioning…..

In reality, shopping is always hard! Each week I have to decide, depending on what else I have to accomplish during the week, whether I will be better able to cope with a daily quick trip to the shops, or if I should instead plan to do a big shopping trip. If I choose the daily quick trip I have to deal with the shops every day, and need to have a short down time after each trip. If I choose a big shopping trip for the week it takes up my whole day because I have to get up in the morning, prepare to go, do the shopping trip, put away all the shopping when I get home and then allow a number of hours to let myself recover.

Why do I need time to recover after shopping? All those things I listed in the first paragraph of this section are sensory triggers for me. The sounds and smells, the visual clutter and processing required to find things, the proximity to other people, moving myself and a trolley through confined space without bumping in to things, having to use spoken language when I am overwhelmed, changes in temperature in different sections of the store, …. all these things are like a mini assault, one thing after another. The longer I am in the store, the bigger each assault feels. On a really hard day, by the time I get to the check out it is next to impossible to give more than one word answers to the barrage of questions from the attendant, even though they are just being polite and doing their job.

On the train:

Due to my spectacular ability to get lost, and my resulting reluctance to drive into the city or to new places, I take the train to many of my work appointments.

Fortunately on a train trip I rarely have to talk to anyone. In fact, I usually make sure I don’t have to by putting my headphones on. The headphones serve two purposes: they stop me from needing to interact with anyone, and they cancel out some of the noise of the train and its passengers that will cause overwhelm.

During train trips I will often spend time on my phone distracting myself with social media, reading or games. But it is very difficult to distract myself from the closeness of other people which results in being bumped, brushed against and smelling other people. It is also very difficult to distract myself from the effect the movement of the train has on my vestibular and proprioceptive systems. The unexpected movements and jostles really mess with my sense of balance and stability, even if I am sitting down. I find myself tensing my body, which makes me tired physically and mentally.

I make sure to allow myself extra time to get to my appointments so that I have time before the appointment starts to seek out a quiet, motionless place to gather myself after a train trip. If I can’t do that for whatever reason (the most likely of which being I missed an earlier train because I was lost) I will find it much harder to concentrate during the appointment.

During weeks in which I have work commitments that require me to travel I have to make sure I schedule as few other commitments as possible so I can leave time for self care and down time to recover from the travelling.

At the swimming pool:

I usually like the swimming pool. I can’t swim with any grace or style, but the way my body feels and moves in the water is really enjoyable for me. I like the sensation of the water moving across my skin, and I like the feeling of moving around with no part of me touching anything solid.

However, enjoying something and being able to do it one day, does not mean that I will enjoy it and be able to do it the next day. Sensory overwhelm can change everything about how my body feels in a very short time.

Last week was very hot. It’s not common where I live to have really hot weather for more than a few days at a time, but it was hotter than usual for longer than usual, and it caused my body to become very overwhelmed. We went to the pool a few days and it was fine… I enjoyed it and it made me feel better. I’m not sure what exactly changed at the end of the week, it was probably a combination of things, but I was so overloaded that I was having trouble making decisions. I knew I felt terrible, and my family was going to the pool, so even though I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go I just said yes and went along.

There were a lot of people there, and they were loud. It was really sunny. In the pool it was crowded and there was so much movement.

The sensation of the water on my skin was different somehow. Every flow past my body grated on me. After a while my skin began to prickle and tingle so that the water hurt me. My kids kept coming up close to me but I really didn’t want to be touched.

I couldn’t hear what my family was saying to me properly because there was so much noise I couldn’t pick out which words I was hearing belonged to the conversation I was in. My head was full of noise and a fuzziness that made it hard to think.

I ended up backing myself up against the wall of the pool and just waiting there until I could think. Once I could think I tried to focus on a part of me that wasn’t uncomfortable. After doing a body check (read a bit more about my body checks in my article on managing my needs on wonky days) I realised my feet were ok, so I concentrated on them for a while. It was hard because my arms were so uncomfortable that my thoughts kept going to them, but after a while my thoughts calmed enough that I could be more deliberate with them.

Focussing on my feet let me rest from my thoughts of discomfort. I deliberately kept my gaze down to just the small bit of water in front of me so that I didn’t need to process the rest of the visual information around me. I didn’t try to talk to anyone (my kids were being watched by my partner) or do anything other than breathe and think about my feet, then other parts of my body that were not uncomfortable…. my legs, my back… until after about 10 minutes I felt better enough to look around.

I was not always able to do this kind of thing to help manage my overload. I can’t do it all the time now either. Some days I would have had to get out of the pool and go and wait in the car for my family to finish their swim- in fact, my partner suggested that as an option when he noticed I was struggling. I was glad it worked that day though, because shortly after lots of people went home and I enjoyed the rest of my swim.

At karate training:

I love karate. Like, really-really love it. I usually train 3 times a week. I find it so helpful for stress management, concentration, fitness, and to help me work on my co-ordination, balance and confidence in my body. That said, karate dojos are noisy places in which large groups of people gather to do noisy movement things that aren’t always predictable and are rarely easy. Which leaves me with an interesting conundrum each time I train.

Every time I train I experience some level of sensory overload. At karate I am working against challenges to my senses of hearing, sight, touch and smell, and most significantly for me in this context, my vestibular and proprioceptive systems.

I cannot watch someone else perform a movement and translate it to action in myself unless I have seen it multiple times and then devised a set of instructions in my head that I then repeat to myself the first at least 20 times I perform the movement. There are parts in the kata I have been practicing for 12 months that I still talk myself through in my head every time I do them (look, pull-turn, step, block, strike, hold 2, 3, 4).

Each time I am learning new combinations of movements I have to concentrate so hard to figure out how to move through each change of position in a way that doesn’t unbalance me. I always feel like I am on the verge of tipping over at karate. It is a conscious process of finding a path for my leg to travel from one place to another that does not unbalance me and meets the requirements of the combination. Not falling over is a serious goal of mine each and every training session. If I am concentrating on my legs, my arms could be doing completely the wrong thing and I would not notice. If I am thinking about my arms too much I risk unbalancing. I feel like I might be getting better at this as I understand the basics of our karate style better, but then I watch others move and feel like I look so much less graceful than I could. I might not be accurately or realistically interpreting the differences between how I move and how others move, but a lifetime of feeling awkward has left me very self conscious, and that is a mental battle that is hard to move past.

I can’t watch someone demonstrate a move when they are not oriented the exact way I will be and then compensate for the difference and end up moving the correct side of my body or finish the move facing the right way, so instead I watch the people beside me as we all move and follow along a second or two behind until I figure it out and devise an instruction script.

I know that when I finish an upper area block my hand should stop at shoulder height, but I do not know where shoulder height is on me unless my hand touches my shoulder first, but that isn’t part of the move. It is not uncommon for Sensei to walk past me as we do line drills and move my hand to the correct height. After 2 years I’m getting better at it though, thank you muscle memory for eventually kicking in!

I do better with both my proprioceptive and visual processing  if I tilt my head down a little  to reduce the amount of visual input I have to deal with at the same time as keeping more of my body in my line of sight, but I know that isn’t ideal because my head should be up with my gaze level and forward. Sometimes, if we are doing line drills and I don’t have to move my feet I can close my eyes for a moment, but not too long or I get dizzy and unbalanced. The need for less visual stimulus to reduce sensory input is difficult to balance with the need to see what others are doing in order to remind my body what to do.

Sometimes if I stim a little by shaking my hands or bouncing a bit I can get rid of some of the feeling of there being too much in my head from the noise level or visual stimulus. Drink breaks give a good opportunity to do this, and I can shake my hands by my side with no one noticing. Or maybe they do notice, but no one has said anything so far, so I don’t feel self conscious about it. I wish I didn’t feel like I should hide this, but I still do.

If I have had a hard day, been to work (or had to catch the train!), or been really busy at home I will really have to work hard to do all the things I want to at karate. If I arrive at training with little overwhelm from the day the session is easier. But, as I said, there is always some level of sensory overload as I train.

The sensory overload I experience at karate training can have a simple result like that I have to stop myself from wiping at the sweat I can feel on my body when I need to be standing still holding a set stance and strike or block position. Or it can be so bad that if I don’t wipe at that sweat I will consciously feel the imprint of each drops path down my body for an hour after it is gone.

It can be as small as needing to ask Sensei to repeat an instruction so I can ensure I processed all the words. Or it can be bad enough that I get to a point where I can no longer make my body move in response to the commands my brain is giving it. When this happens in my regular dojo, where I feel safe and I know and trust my Sensei and the others training, it’s frustrating but not to stressful because I can just stop where I am for as long as I need to and let my body catch up. If it happens at a grading it’s more stressful, and I tend to just force myself to move somehow, but I know my form suffers as a result and that makes me very self conscious. It’s not happened so far at tournament that I cannot move, but I lost my last bout in kumite at tournament because of sensory challenges (mostly auditory overwhelm) and I fear one day it will be worse and that the stress of that would start me toward a meltdown or full shutdown in a place I don’t feel safe.

The key for me with karate is that I love it. So pushing through the sensory challenges is worth it for what I get out of participating. I am slowly trying and finding ways I can better manage my sensory stuff at karate, because it is important to me to keep participating. If it was tennis I was trying to push through…, I just wouldn’t. I don’t love tennis, and as an adult who can choose what I participate in, I simply don’t do sports I don’t love because putting myself into sensory overload for something that isn’t worth it, just … isn’t worth it!

A few closing remarks

So, that’s me and some of my experience of sensory overload.

I feel nervous publishing this article. Even more nervous in some ways than I do about disclosing I am autistic.

When I say I am autistic I am not really giving much detail, unless you are also autistic and understand what the statement means in a personal way. But this article outlines, in more detail than I usually give, the ways in which I am disabled.

I feel nervous because people I know in ‘real life’ are likely to read this and it could well change their perception of me. I’m also worried it might cause them to wonder if I see them as a problem or challenge, or blame them for my challenges. I just want to say that is not the case. I am in no way relating frustration with people I know in this article. I am simply sharing my experience, the things I do, and the strategies I have in place to make sure I live my life well and manage the challenges the interaction between my sensory system and our world bring me. I don’t want people to see me differently because they have more information about ways in which I am disabled. I will continue to do the things I do, just as I did last week. That said, I am always happy to talk more with people if they have genuine questions (that goes for people I know in ‘real life’ and people I know only online).

I am an autistic adult. I have had a lot of my life to experience and reflect on how I work and what impacts on me. I can tell you that even well before I knew I was autistic I was experiencing all these things, I just didn’t know why. Because of that I internalised my frustration and gave it words like “I am so awkward/clumsy/uncoordinated/sensitive” and so believed I was faulty and inadequate. The gift of understanding what was really happening for me has allowed me to shift that internal dialogue to one of acceptance and patience with myself (usually). I hope that in some way my sharing will help others do that for themselves, and for their children.

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4 thoughts on “Sensory overload

  1. neurodivergentnicole says:

    Cleaning is the WORST. When I’m doing okay, I move faster, so I clutter more, and then, over time, there’s clutter everywhere and it sucks the life out of me so I can’t get it together to clean. I was so proud I helped my son clean over half of his room over the break, but by then I’d had a week of vacation so I had my a-game going. We never got to the closet or the other side of the bed, but we counted it as a win. Someday…we’ll get back there. And let’s not discuss the table behind me that grows clutter on a daily basis (*sighs*). Sometimes I wonder if the ability to have so much stuff now (combined with the mommy wars pressing down on us from time-to-time even after we’ve refused to play) is part of why women are realizing they’re Autistic more and more. When we had less stuff and weren’t fighting with neighbors about overscheduling our kids, these things all would have been happening, but maybe it would have been less overwhelming. Or maybe it was worse because they felt this just as much even in a less cluttery/scheduly society and didn’t have a name for it. Thanks for sharing your experiences!

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  2. wishuponanautist says:

    Could I also add in that we also have an introceptive sensory system, which is a catch-all term for our internal system. Thirst, hunger, the need to pee or poop, feeling full, nausea, internal cramps / pain, and i think the feeling in your pungs when you hold your breath / breathe in deeply? Those are all introceptive.

    It’s quite common for us to have difficulty processing any one or more of these sensations, and sometimes these sensations can contribute to sensory overload (eg period cramps do it for me, for some people being hungry (even if they don’t notice it) can make other sensory input hurt more, etc)

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    • michellesuttonwrites says:

      Yes! Thanks for that. I touch on those things a bit in my article on wonky days (linked in this article too) and I totally agree with you that internal feelings of discomfort add to my sensory overload. Not sure it’s true for all who have sensory processing challenges but it certainly is for me.

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