Sensory overload. I throw that word around a lot. In conversations with my mother, friends, family, and activists in the inclusion space. But to those who do not personally experience sensory overload, what does it feel like and what forms does it come in? That is what I will be trying to explain in this 3-part blog series, in which I’ll share my experiences and hopefully give an idea of what Autistic people go through, with this blog dedicated to traditional panic sensory overload.
It’s important to mention that people with sensory processing disorders also struggle with sensory overload and how many of the techniques used and challenges faced can work for them too. Sensory overloads vary. I get different types of sensory overloads; each one feels slightly different. Once I can feel like my skin is on fire and another time my body can start to shut down. As always, since each Autistic person experiences things differently I highly recommend you ask individually what is difficult and easy.
Chapter One: Panic
For these blogs, I’ll be prefacing each section with my personal stories and experiences with each type of sensory overload. You’ll get to “live” these experiences and then explore them with me. Let’s go back in time.
My memories are still hazy but fire drills were my constant enemy in elementary school. When the bell rang, my body went into a frenzy of chaos as it reacted to the alarm. I rushed outside, not in an orderly fashion. The fear of a fire was never a threat, the alarm was always the rival. If we were told that the drill would happen around eleven I would stare down the clock, my body bracing to lose it. Over time, I began to deal better with these drills, I faced far scarier foes. Yet to this day, you can notice a shift in my demeanor if a drill occurs. I bolt as fast as I can from the building to the designated zone. I may be persevering but I am still struggling inside.
I had developed strategies on how to cope during B'nai Mitzvah parties but nothing prepared me for this. The space was very small, not much larger than the top floor of my house. The only break from the crowd was the bathroom, embarrassing. And even there, the music, energy, and lights seemed to creep through. I was hysterical. It felt that the world was ending, crushing up against me. One of my mom’s friends came to pick me up. I left early.
I tried my best to attend my first concert with my family. The air reeks of pot and despite my earplugs, the concert’s noise and energy overwhelm my senses. I try taking a break from my seat but the crowd is still too much. It is supposed to be a quieter concert, but the Dead and Co. band still sounds like a blaring fire alarm, getting louder and louder. I left early.
With these types of Sensory overloads, I have an experience similar to a panic attack, with the only difference being that my sensory overload is causing the panic attack, not anxiety. When I have a sensory panic attack, my body is overwhelmed. It feels like the sensory trigger is surrounding me and suffocating me. I am confronted with a flight or fight response. I feel angry and upset and my first priority is to get out. But that is not always possible and this is what makes it difficult. These attacks can last for who knows how long and drain me and affect me for the rest of my day.
These types of sensory overloads used to be the most common for me, especially as I was working through separate strategies to cope with my anxiety. Yet over time, these became less prevalent. My anxiety and sensory issues are not overlapping as much as they used to. Sometimes the panic attack will mesh with other types of sensory overloads creating two challenges at once. The one advantage of this sensory overload though is that first, since it is related to panic attacks, professionals and therapists have had an easier time understanding and helping me through one. Second, Xanax has proven to be an effective asset when confronting this type of sensory overload. If I know there is a risk of a sensory panic attack, I bring a Xanax with me.
What can you do to help in this type of sensory overload, which is one of the most common? First, if you are hosting a loud or sensory overwhelming event such as a party or concert, designate a space as a sensory calm-down zone. This should not be a bathroom, but it should be a place that is quiet and cool where there are not a lot of people so someone in need can go to calm down. Make sure to communicate this with guests or attendees. This is, in my opinion, the most practical and effective way to help deal with potential sensory overload at events. Also, giving people the space to leave or take a break during one of these sensory overloads is greatly appreciated.
While we can always try to prevent sensory overloads, it is important to remember we are never perfect. I don’t think I could ever get through a concert. I have rejected invitations to concerts, drum circles, and even some sporting events. Just the other day, I decided not to attend my school’s pep rally. While to the neurotypical mind, this can sound like a sob story, it is not. Like any person, there are things I am not equipped to deal with. I may be able to read a 1000-page book, as I am a lover of reading, but my friend may not. Meanwhile, my friend may be able to do advanced calculus and I simply cannot. That is what is so great about humanity. We are all unique! That is why I share my different experiences in each of these blogs.
Lastly, I want to share a moment when my sensory processing has brought me joy.
The holiday of Sukkot has always held a special place in my heart. Whenever I shake the Lulav and Etrog I get a feeling, a sensory connection, that many neurotypical people may not feel. When I sing the Hallel, I am audibly stimming (see: Tefillah, an Autistic Experience). And Sukkot brings me closer to my religion and to my community. I see friends. I see family. I see myself, and I see that Autism is not a curse like popular society wishes I see it. No, it is a different way of being, and it comes with drawbacks, like sensory overloads. But it also comes with these moments of joy. And while I want to share my experience with sensory overloads as a way to educate and help people, my main message for you to take away is that I choose to focus on the joy. You should too.