What is sensory overload like?

I want to talk about sensory overload because it’s something that’s often neglected outside of the Autistic community. So many “experts” focus on the socialising aspect of autism and so the general public often doesn’t understand why sensory input can affect us so strongly.

Our senses can be much stronger or much weaker than in neurotypical people. This means we can be sensitive to loud noise, or seek out certain noises. We might have an extremely high or low pain threshold. We might not be able to tell easily if we are too hot or too cold. We might seek out certain textures and avoid others. Every autistic person is different in what they look for to stimulate or calm their senses.

What most of us do have in common is that sensory overload fucking sucks.

Sensory overload is like being punched in the face. It is painful. It is disorientating. It is confusing. And it is a normal and natural reaction for the autistic person to want to get the fuck out of there. If we cannot escape then things start getting foggy as our brain begins shutting out input to protect itself. And then we meltdown.

It is a commonly held belief that autistic people can and should be taught to cope with this to enable them to do “normal” things. I think most of us adults do try to put up with it to a degree if possible, mainly because the world is not set up for us at all but here we are living in it. We’d really rather not, but there you go. But that’s adults with control over their own environment. Children should absolutely not be taught to hide their pain.

When you see an autistic child reacting to sensory overload, they are not “upset”. They are not being naughty or stubborn. They cannot learn to deal with it and gradual exposure will not help.

Expecting an autistic person, especially a child, to “put up with it” is inhumane. Sometimes it can be avoided – do you absolutely have to go shopping on a Saturday afternoon? Is it necessary to go that funfair? Do they have to wear the scratchy school uniform?- but for the occasions where it absolutely cannot be avoided then there are tools that can help; sunglasses, ear defenders, comfortable clothes, scent-free toiletries etc. It is not a weakness to need these things. It is not something that an autistic child needs to be weaned off.

Expecting an autistic person to “deal with a bit of discomfort” that might take them days to recover from is not supportive, helpful or positive.

After all, how would you feel if you were made to go somewhere to be punched in the face repeatedly and you were told to “get used to it”?

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