5: Sensory Overload & Control

I have a lot of sensory issues. I have enough that I will be writing multiple posts where I talk about each sense and how I experience it because there’s just so much to talk about. This post is primarily to explain what sensory overload feels like to me and how overwhelming sensory input makes it necessary for me to control my environment.

If you don’t know anything about sensory overload or Sensory Processing Disorder, this (quite accurately terrifying) video is a good place to start. It does a fantastic job of painting a picture of the kind of sensory overload I tend to experience. I would say “Turn down the volume!” but since we Autistic people don’t get the luxury of turning down our surroundings, it could be interesting to try to watch with the volume as is. That being said, don’t blow out your eardrums or overwhelm yourself too much! If you have sensory issues and/or anxiety, I don’t recommend watching the video. I couldn’t make it through and what I did watch made me incredibly anxious and emotional. 

This is one example of one of my worst recent experiences with sensory overload:

My family visited me one summer while I was living and working in Japan. During one of our outings, I had a sensory overload induced meltdown. It was a hot, sunny day. Temperatures were over 100° F that day (38° C). Sunlight glittered off any shiny surface. The heat and brightness from the sun beating down on us made me feel nauseous and dizzy.The humidity stuck to me like a damp, hot, fuzzy blanket taken prematurely from the dryer and forcibly wrapped around me. The sweat trickling down my back was too much; it felt like insects crawling all over me. Tags and seams on my clothes felt like razorblades digging into my skin.  My feet throbbed from walking all day. Even the taste of water was too much. I couldn’t handle all the sounds around me, even after shoving earplugs so deep into my ears they ached.

I lashed out and snapped at my family and even (quietly) at strangers who were “too loud.” I didn’t want anyone touching me to comfort me. I had nervous twitches and had to keep tapping my fingers repetitively against my leg (a form of stimming) to focus and cope as I raced back to the hostel. When I got there, I grabbed my mother’s noise-cancelling headphones, curled up in the fetal position and pressed the headphones to my ears with the earplugs still inserted. Even that wasn’t enough. Even the sound of my own breathing was too much to handle. It felt like something was crawling under my skin. A few times, the sensation became too much and I had to flail my arms as hard as I could to get the feeling to stop. Eventually I could sit up, and then began rocking back and forth. Throughout it all, I was mostly nonverbal; I became mute….

I’ll write more about my sensory experiences in further posts, but I hope this gives some idea about how sensory processing difficulties can add up and overwhelm someone.


Control

Some people like or need to have a sense of control over a situation. Some people seek that control as a power trip. There’s often a bad connotation of the word “control.”  

But I personally find my occasional need for control stems from a want to have a say in what little I can in a world not made for me–not designed for me. In a society that feels chaotic and takes all my willpower to exist in without melting down, I’d say that a little control is justified.

So, what do I mean by control? Hopefully these things seem like small adjustments to neurotypicals, but they are huge for me. Ideally, I like to have some say in some of the following when out in a public setting:

  • Being able to choose where I sit.
    • If I can keep track of noises and people visually, I can deal better with noise. But if it’s a crowd, the noise is behind me, or I can’t find the source, I can’t anticipate when it will happen or see the source as it makes the sounds. Additionally, having someone or something behind me making noise makes me extremely uncomfortable to begin with. I prefer to be able to track things at all times. I need to know what sort of social, sensory input will be coming from and when or at least have a vague idea.
    • The lighting in a room can make all the difference, especially if it’s crowded!
    • Trying to sit somewhere I won’t see a TV screen that will distract and overstimulate me.
    • Not sitting next to or nearby someone with heavy perfume, cologne, or cigarette smoke on them.
  • Being able to control volume and type of sound
    • If the music is too loud or someone is drumming their fingers or clicking a pen incessantly, I need to be able to either wear earplugs or headphones or ask someone to stop a behavior.
  • Being able to choose what I want to/can eat without judgement
    • I have a lot of trouble eating certain foods. I’ll go into detail about this in a post about texture and taste, but being able to order whatever I want without comments or judgement is key.
  • I need to know I can leave
    • I need to know that I can get up from the table and escape a quiet space like the bathroom, outside, or the car.
    • Knowing I can leave a situation or environment, whether temporarily or permanently means I’m able to remain in a stressful situation much longer.

I often don’t get to have this kind of control over my environment in public, but I’m getting better at learning to ask those I’m with to accommodate me. I’m still working on not feeling selfish or overbearing, but these requests are not pickiness. These things are not whims or me being a control freak. These are small adjustments or allowances people can make (which often should not affect them much) that can make a tense, stressful, overwhelming, or even scary situation a pleasant one.

 

[image description: A busy picture with half a dozen different types of flowers and plants of varying colors, shapes, and textures. Pinks, greens, oranges, reds, and greens make the picture a little overwhelming.]

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