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.