There is a scene from the 2009 Sherlock Holmes movie. Sherlock is in the restaurant waiting for Watson and his fiancée. You see him people watching. But quickly the noise and the images overwhelm him and he closes his eyes to shut out the world. Too much for him. Sensory overload.

It’s one of the few times I’ve seen this depicted on screen. It’s a problem for so many in our society. Yet it’s an often overlooked element of autism.

Imagine every time you go shopping, or sit in a classroom, or walk in a busy street or sit on an aeroplane or cross the road …. you get hit with this sensory overload. Too many different noises, too many images, too many smells, just too many sensations. Your brain just can’t process them. It can cause anxiety, confusion, anger, blurred vision, a meltdown or it may just hurt a lot.

Son has suffered with this. I’ve suffered with this.

Sometimes it’s easy to spot those potential sensory vortexes. Places with lots of people in a confined space. Various noise sources. Complex lighting. But often it can be more subtle situations which can produce the dreaded vortex.

  • Bright colours and certain patterns. The wrong type of wallpaper. A vivid unusual designed piece of clothing.
  • Where you try and process a number of facial expressions or different types of body language at the same time. A school corridor.
  • An unusual or striking taste sensation.
  • An unpleasant touch sensation. The wrong type of sock or glove. With me it’s often the feel of cold metal.
  • Trying to listen to a conversation where a number of people are trying to talk at the same time.

Over time you learn which environments will cause the issues and you start to avoid them. That’s potentially one of the reasons some with autism seek isolation and a private lifestyle.

Our son had started to develop his own defence strategies. One of his most effective ones is dreaming. When the environmental factors start to become unpleasant or unsettling he will often dream. Create a world he can fully control. This helps him shut out many of sensory inputs trying to overload him. You will often see him flapping or stimming during this process. He doesn’t completely shut out the entire world. He can keep track of certain inputs. You will see him dreaming but at the same time he is scanning a conversation or a teacher talking. As a kid I would do something similar when the anxiety started to kick in. Suddenly you feel your back in control again. Unfortunately I was not as good at keeping track of what the teacher was saying – my school reports often mentioned I was a day dreamer and needed to try harder.

Unfortunately as a society we are just not geared up to understand these issues. If you don’t conform to the required standards then you are labelled different. A problem. Most schools give little thought to how they design a classroom and no thought to what goes on the walls. But this can have such a huge impact. A psychologist told me this true story.

A young girl struggled to concentrate in the classroom. She was unable to read at school or in the home. She was written off as low attainment with behavioural issues. Then she was referred to a specialist who asked school to try and teach her in a different location with plain walls. The only room available was a little empty storage room under the stairs. Unbelievably the girl suddenly started to read in the store room.

The problem was that the classroom had a bright patterned wall which overloaded the girls senses. Every room in her home had complex patterned wallpaper. Quickly her parents redecorated the house with one colour paint. Unfortunately her school did not change the classroom so the girl would go to read in the storeroom.

We are seeing progress. For example some stores are starting to run autism friendly shopping slots. We went to one. The shop had turned down the lighting. Switched off the PA and music. Staff wore white shirts. Some of the bright coloured walls were covered over. The store controlled how many people entered the store. It worked and made such a difference.

As a society we have failed too many for far too long. We need to stop being so judgemental about those who don’t fit into the narrow accepted standards. We also need to have a long hard look at how we design our public buildings and homes. Let’s start to make a difference.

46 thoughts on “Sensory overload

  1. You know, even those not on the spectrum (officially) can be affected by overload in certain situations. This suggests that Autism is not an easily definable condition. How many of us feel uncomfortable in crowded situations? I hate shopping in any store with neon or tube lighting overhead. The subtle flickering gets to me very quickly. Likewise with lots of people all thinking different things within a crowd. For me, that feels like everyone shouting at me. Such situations bring on a headache very quickly. I hate being on airplanes and am thankful when I can sink into my individual seat and just be in my own world (I just cut everyone else out of it). I loathe hospitals and doctor’s offices. I just try to stick near to a wall in those places. I am so aware of sick people and indifferent, busy doctors. I can only imagine how hard things must be for your son. 😔

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    1. I was going to say the same about certain situations being a trigger whether or not a person has autism. Now that it is term time and where I work is heaving, it’s a lot more stressful. I am extrovert and love new situations but the idea of a shop with no other customers in it sounds like heaven. Actually, a shop with only one choice for everything as well would be even better 😊

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  2. Not only does society fail, there is way too much overload everywhere. Do we need to do our shopping to the noise of a disco beat. okay, sounds like fun, if you are in that zone but truly when you are trying tae mind the fact you need lo roll the week, or you are in some difficult place within yourself…well.. So how people who can’t cope with it at all manage is beyond me.

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  3. Overloaded systems put us under great stress.

    This can tire and wear us out (or down) making us less able to do all other day to day activity as well as we might. This further adds to the stress. And it becomes a cycle.

    Finding ways to reduce the overload, which can include understanding of the brain’s own self-regulatory abilities for internal and external stimuli, as well as developing coping strategies or avoidance is key.

    I have read recently where compassionate meditation (such as practiced by Buddhist monks) which is learning to show compassion to all beings, especially one’s self, can increase the functioning of the amygdala in our brains.

    The amygdala and hippocampus play important roles in regulating sensory and emotional responses and also in helping to add information into long term memory.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. As China (and many other countries) so clearly demonstrates more and more each day, Governments prefer conformity to uniqueness.

        How does a society work in opposition to it’s leaders?

        Liked by 3 people

  4. Oh my; I LOVE that scene! I’m that way, too, but seem to have a little more ability at maintaining consciousness. For me it’s all the people doing interesting things and I want to hear them all and they’re all talking and all doing things and…

    Most of the time, I numb. I keep my brain half-asleep so I’m not constantly aware of everything.

    And your descriptions of your son remind me of a kid I knew in school: he’d walk around the crowded halls, making some gesture with his hands and exploding noises with his mouth. His close friend told me this guy was imagining everything in a video game, blowing up the enemies and navigating the gamespace.

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  5. I’m sure sensory overload is par for the course for just about everyone to some degree. We weren’t made to deal with large volumes of people in small, confined spaces, bright artificial lights, constant music. The latter two are only possible because of electricity and the former might always have existed in cities to some extent but most people didn’t live in them till recently.

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  6. You are so right. In truth, I did not know much about sensory issues until I had MY kids. I can look back now and see my husbands aversion to wearing jeans or eating certain foods as sensory issues. Even for myself, in crowded places I was always asking to leave – there was too much going on around me. I didn’t know what it was, I just avoided crowded places. And I am still learning. I didn’t even think about the color shirts people wore until you mentioned that the store clerks wore plain shirts on sensory day. So many levels – and for those making the effort, that’s great. Let’s hope the word continues to spread and more establishments offer these changes.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. This made me remember a co-teacher of mine one year in first grade. All the teachers were amazed at the time and energy she put into setting up an awesome classroom. One day I walked into her room calling her name. She replied. I could not find her. Her walls were so busy she blended right in and I couldn’t locate her until after a she spoke a few sentences. After that, I realized that less decoration in a classroom is better for the kids.

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  8. After my brain injury I started to see a lot of similarities between people with autism and people with ABI (acquired brain injury) in how environment affects their sensory loading. I both cases its people who are neurologically atypical.
    Your list encompasses all the factors that contribute to my sensory overload.

    Liked by 3 people

      1. There’s no rushing to decide on that. It’s like I know I can feel my body can’t handle much when it comes to bread, ice cream, soda, etc. I have a little, and then…done. My body tells me to walk, so I walk. Maybe you just need to listen to your body–allow a small serving, and then feel freee to walk away.

        Liked by 1 person

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