Lisa D. (chaoticidealism) wrote,
Lisa D.

All about Overload

If you're autistic, the words "sensory overload" probably sound pretty ominous to you. If you're not autistic, it probably brings up images of a tantruming autistic child. Either way, overload is Really Freaking Annoying.

Sensory overload happens when you're exposed to sensations you can't handle, or can't handle for a long time: Bright or flickering lights; loud or high-pitched noise; scratchy, uncomfortable clothing or shoes; intense or unpleasant smells. After a while, when I'm exposed to stuff like that, I start to feel "out of it", like I can't think very well, and to detach from my environment. In extreme cases, I have trouble talking coherently. Strange that mere sensory input would do this; and until now, I didn't realize that that was why it was happening (and why I so hated my job at a warehouse that I cried because I had to go to work and had to lie down for hours afterwards).

Emotional and mental overload come from dealing with internal things that are hard to process. Emotions are apparently hard to deal with if you are autistic because you're not entirely sure where they come from or what they're meant to do. And mental overload usually comes from having to socialize for a long time--this is also difficult for autistic people--or do complex tasks that require a lot of planning (if you have executive dysfunction, which a lot of autistic people do). Transitions are another cause of mental overload, especially unexpected ones. When you have a mental picture of the future, and suddenly everything's changed, you start to panic: What happens next? It's like not knowing how to swim, and  mistakenly jumping into the deep end of the pool--you're splashing, getting water in your nose and mouth, and desperately trying to grab the side of the pool--which you can't see because there's water in your eyes! You were expecting there to be a bottom to stand on; but there isn't, and now you don't have a plan. No wonder transitions cause so much trouble.

What overload feels like: Detached, can't think straight, overwhelmed, don't know what to do, having trouble remembering things, having trouble communicating, everything seems "too much"--too loud, too messy, too smelly, too bright.

In childhood, overload usually results in temper tantrums--often without an obvious cause. My mom tells a story of my tantruming because I didn't want to take off my coat--looking back on it now, and remembering that I liked the way the coat felt, I bet it had something to do with transitions, and something to do with the sensory change of the difference between coat and no-coat.

Overload: Major trouble for the autistic brain. Even more trouble since most people aren't autistic, and the world isn't structured to help people who get easily overloaded.

So what to do about overload? A lot of people who have autistic kids initially get  it wrong: The child gets overloaded, and has tantrums; and they focus on stopping the tantrums, often in mid-screech. No wonder it doesn't work!

But they're not the only ones who've got it wrong; I made the same mistake. When I was 16 and going to college, I determined that I wouldn't have any more tantrums; and I didn't--but I had to use another method to calm my overload, which I still wasn't dealing with properly. As a result, I began to use self-injury to calm myself. Self-injury seems to help overload by providing a single, intense thing (pain or the sight of blood, usually) on which you can focus your mind, which at that point is usually very scattered. Unfortunately, it doesn't help for very long, because it's temporary and the overload is still there. On top of that, you get scars from most types of self-injury (or worse--head-banging can cause blindness from detached retinas;  if you do this, get a helmet for goodness sakes!).

What many people--autistic and non-autistic--don't get in regard to stopping overload and the resulting meltdowns: You have to stop overload before it happens, or at the very latest once you're starting to see signs of overload.

Prevention is the key.
Once meltdown is happening, it's too late. The best you can do at that point is try to keep from hurting anybody, get away someplace on your own, and wait it out.

I didn't stop hurting myself until I was diagnosed with Asperger's (finally) and found out about sensory overload. Until then, I hadn't realized my sensory system (among other things) was all that different from anybody else's. Nowadays, I hardly hurt myself at all. And, anyway, I get way more injuries just because I'm clumsy. I've been known to trip over thin air, much less my own feet!

Next up: Overload Prevention Tips.
Tags: meltdowns, sensory
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