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 a sensory shutdown. 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.
It’s freshman year. And it is a Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel Independence Day) assembly at my school. Loud music is playing in the school gym. It is much louder than I could have imagined. As everyone descends off of the bleachers I freeze. It is scary. I am conscious but my body is in power save mode. To protect myself against the barrage of noise my body has decided to shut down. No movement, no reaction, this will hopefully blunt the effect of the sensory overload. Does it? No. Eventually, my dean and teachers noticed and helped me. I snap out of this trance and am brought outside. This is my first sensory shutdown, it won’t be the last, and I will need to develop strategies.
It’s sophomore year. I am in a Talmud class at the peak of the school year. I don’t remember why but a lot of things were going wrong that day and my sensory tolerance was running low. My Talmud teacher is difficult to explain but he has a magnetic personality and my class was very talkative. It was the last period on a Friday so class was louder than usual I don’t recall what specifically triggered it. Maybe the class erupted into conversation or loud buses preparing for Friday dismissal – regardless, I was at my breaking point. I shut down. By this point, I knew water, a sensory pleasure, could help me snap out of it. I just needed to muster the strength to control one hand so I could grab my water bottle and drink. I was able to do this after two minutes and it was over.
This summer while working as a camp counselor I encountered my worst sensory shutdown. It’s raining, and it is dark even though it's the afternoon. It is one of the most intense thunderstorms in years. The entire edah (age group) is located under a tent. There are one hundred kids, around a dozen and a half staff and the entire tent is shaking and vibrating from the storm and the crying kids. Even this description cannot do justice to the insanity of the situation. It was hell. I tried my different strategies but they didn’t work. Then I shut down – twice. The first time I snapped out from a kid shaking me awake – they were terrified. The next time I was unsure of what to do. I found a way out and it was painful. I have this weird ability to tighten my quad, so I did that so that my body would flinch and force myself to move. It worked but it hurt – bad. I never knew a sensory overload could get this bad. The bar for a trigger was getting higher, but the consequences were getting worse.
A shutdown isn’t sudden. It slowly builds up, and if I am lucky I can prevent it. I have done this in the past by removing myself from the stimulus, drinking water, and even eating two bars of ice cream during that thunderstorm (not my proudest moment!). These have had varying levels of success. I can feel it when I am reaching a point of no return, and then it begins. I begin to lose control of my body and I lock in place, I usually have enough time to get myself in a comfortable position. The sensory inputs begin to be muffled and everything calms down. I feel like I am in an empty place, devoid and desolate. Yet, I am still conscious and I am able to form a plan to “escape.” If I am lucky, I can muster the strength to grab water nearby or to signal for help or to tighten my quad as I did during the thunderstorm over the summer. Other times I can just wait out the shutdown. When it ends, I wake up with a jolt of adrenaline which can last a few minutes. I don’t think a shutdown has lasted longer than five minutes total, and most of the time it has been less. But it can feel like an eternity and its effects can last the rest of the day, if not longer. I, In the case of the thunderstorm the first shutdown lasted ~2 minutes, then there was an intermediate period of a few more minutes, and then a second shutdown of about 4-5 minutes.
The social awkwardness of a shutdown is difficult to articulate. It is scary for me and it looks scary to others. But most of the time I don’t want sympathy, I just want space to compose myself and calm down. That is why after each of these incidents, when I could, I took time to myself, in a quiet and sensory-calming environment. I spoke with people who listened to me with respect, not patronization. Afterward, I explained what I experienced to the people around me. I provided more details to the adults, and I told my campers that I wasn’t feeling well and needed to sit down for a moment.
What can you do to help when someone has a shutdown? There isn’t much lipstick I can put on this really ugly situation. It’s general advice. Just like any time you see someone in a scary situation, ask if they are ok. If they are not responding, try to see if you can get their attention. But when they do regain control, if they ask for space, room, or alone time, give them that. And if they want to speak, just listen, be respectful, and offer helpful advice. Warning people ahead of time what potential sensory triggers can be avoided, giving a quiet zone, and sometimes, like that thunderstorm, it can be out of our control.
Here is another positive sensory story. As I have said before, I like to share positive sensory stories because often, Autism is portrayed negatively. Recently, I was away for a Shabbaton. I decided to step out from benching (grace after meals). This tends to be very loud on Shabbat and I was nervous about getting a sensory overload. Instead, I stood out in the hallway doing my own personal davening and it was really meaningful. Avoiding sensory overloads doesn’t mean you lose something, it is an opportunity to gain something.