Sensory Overload. I throw that word around a lot. In conversations with my mother, friends, family, and colleagues in the inclusion space. But what does it feel like and what forms does it come in? I’ll start with this. 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. In this blog series, I’ll share my experiences and hopefully give an idea of what Autistic people go through, with this blog dedicated to depersonalization. As always, since each Autistic person experiences things differently I highly recommend you ask individually what is difficult and easy. 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.
Note: let’s learn some vocabulary! Before you read this post, I think it is important that we are all familiar with what depersonalization is. Please read this article: https://www.cuimc.columbia.edu/news/depersonalization-everything-you-need-know.
Disney World is a barrage of sensory triggers. Heat, lights, people, smells, noises, sweat, textures, motion, just energy. And like a rock that slowly is washed away over many years, my ability to cope with the sensory inputs began to fade as the day went on. I got through the park each day, but at night, when we would eat dinner at the Disney Springs complex, I was beginning to lose control. I began to be depersonalized. I felt out of my body. It felt like everything was hazy. I couldn’t follow the right directions. I was lost. And I began to have my mask slip. As we got on the shuttle back to our hotel it continued to get worse and I began to lose control over my own actions, my words were slurred, and I could easily have been mistaken for being drunk. I laughed mysteriously about stealing ice cream. I was not acting normally. I was not okay. I needed help. But my family did not recognize this. They did not know that I was overstimulated. When I stepped off the bus and walked towards the hotel, it happened, and I finally shut down. It was a much slower, much more drawn-out process of a sensory overload. I was lucky this occurred at the end of the day, not the beginning. Because it was terrible.
In June, we had a party at our house to celebrate my brother becoming a Bar Mitzvah (Jewish coming-of-age). It was small. It was loud. It was hot. There were a lot of lights. I began to act weird, and while I didn’t understand it at the time, I reacted perfectly. I went to my room, where it was dark, quiet, and cold. I lay myself on the bed and just sat there. I let myself take a break and I completely cleansed myself from the stimuli. It was like a rest and it worked. I rejoined for dessert.
At camp, our bunk had an activity inside this room full of wooden blocks (which were tracks). The campers would construct tracks and test their physics skills by placing a ball on the track and watching it go down. These were seven-year-olds, and they weren’t exactly trained engineers. It was a small room and was enclosed so the balls did not roll out. So the constant crashing, pushing, screaming, and loud talking was a lot of noise and it was all in one small room. I tried to walk around to watch the kids but I found my mind remote and distant and I felt out of my body. I thought I was just dizzy. I sat down in my seat and that helped me a little. That night, during a session with my therapist, I learned what this actually was: depersonalization, and I have now begun strategies on how to deal with it.
Depersonalization often doesn’t happen alone. They tend to mesh with or precede a shutdown or a sensory-based panic attack. As I’ve experienced depersonalization with greater frequency, I have developed strategies. Removing myself from the situation works the best. I try to breathe, relax my muscles, and shut off my brain. I also prioritize getting extra sleep for the night. Like with any sensory overload, I will have lost significant energy and sleep needed for the next day. I also find myself extra vulnerable to panic attacks and more sleep builds my tolerance for making it through without shutting down.
How can you help if you see someone who is depersonalized? Recognize when this may be occurring and suggest that the person should take a break or sit down. As with any sensory overload, please designate a quiet place. And if you see someone acting differently from usual and they have not taken a drug or illicit substance, please do not make a joke. Instead, inform others that they are not drunk or high and please try to help by locating a sibling, parent, partner, or close friend of the affected.
Let me leave you with another positive sensory story. As I stated in Part One, I find it very important to dispel the notion that sensory processing is an inherent negative. In fact, I find it quite helpful. When I need to cleanse my mind or reconcentrate I will take a shower. The warm water can help refocus my thoughts. In fact, I actually write better after I take a shower. I also take warm showers to calm myself down. If I have a panic attack at home my first tool will be to take a shower. It can help remove me from the situation and calm me down. What can you take away from this? Come up with creative ways to help yourself. Specifically, sensory solutions can often be a great option not only for neurodiverse people but also for neurotypical and allistic folks. Try it out!