So today, I’m going to answer a few questions:
- Firstly we’re going to look at what Sensory Overload is,
- what things can help reduce this overload,
- and how it can contribute to meltdowns and shutdowns.
What is Sensory Overload?
Sensory overload is what happens when one or more of our senses becomes over-stimulated to the point where we may be unable to cope.
At this point, many autistic people might have something called a meltdown or something called a shutdown. These are extreme stress responses and mean the person may try to escape or hide from more sensory stimuli.
It’s sometimes hard to anticipate when someone might experience Sensory Overload: This is because things from the day before, or even in the past, might increases someone’s sensory sensitivity. So the amount of stress they feel in an environment or when exposed to something can not always be predictable.
However, some things are easy to spot and plan for, such as:
- The lights in a room being too bright
- Too much noise in the background
- Areas with sudden loud noises (such as traf c)
- A scent being overpowering, such as bleach
- “Busy” objects (such as patterned wallpaper, carpets, or clothing with lots of detail)
- Crowds of people
Now we’ve looked at some of the things that can cause Sensory Overload let’s look at some simple things we can do to help reduce it.
Many autistic people are oversensitive to sound. Even if they’re not, background noises can be sudden, loud, and intrusive. At best, distracting and at worse painful. But ways that can reduce or give someone some level of control over the noise in their environment can help tremendously.
I use noise-cancelling headphones. I’ve owned several pairs of noise- cancelling headphones and earbuds ranging from £50-350 in cost over the past ten years. I find that headphones block out more noise than earbuds, and if you’re also playing music at the same time, a cheaper pair can work quite well. Living in a city, noise-cancelling headphones are a necessity for me, and they are really good at blocking out consistent background noises such as cars.
Sadly all but the most expensive pairs are not so good at blocking out sudden noises and people.
I often have parents ask me why their children hate loud noises but often make a lot of noise themselves. And often, that’s because the noises they make themselves are under their control and so can be comforting, or they’re making that noise to block out unpleasant ones from the environment.
I use wireless earbuds while out in public with people. I keep one in so the other ear is free to hear people. I find that having a consistent background noise (such as music I like) in one ear helps me cope better with all the inconsistent sounds around me in my environment. Though sometimes this means I mishear more… but if I can manage longer in an environment, I am sure it’s worth it.
Many autistic people are oversensitive to light. One way of reducing this is to wear tinted glasses or sunglasses. I use tinted glasses, and I’ve just released a video about them here: https:/ youtu.be/mgelu9PI57w
In this video, you’ll see me try and talk about blue, purple, red, yellow, and orange tints (I still can’t get hold of green!). Tints and sunglasses also benefit from reducing visual noise from the environment, such as reflections and glare. Tints can also be used on computer and phone screens, and tinted paper and overlays for physical reading and writing.
One other thing that can help is reducing light after being exposed. Such as sitting in a dark room after a party or a long day at work or a school. This also has the added bene t of reducing the chance of sensory overload tipping into the next day.
Some autistic people find touch very unpleasant, painful or overwhelming. Unfortunately, when out in public spaces, people might end up touching us. This can cause anxiety and heighten our sensitivity to touch. Wearing safe fabrics that don’t cause discomfort and a safe place to escape to can help.
As well as possible touch, crowds can be difficult for those with body awareness sensitivities. The proximity of others and their movement can be overwhelming. In a crowd, there’s also noise and smells, any of which can cause overload. If it does, the best thing to do is try and leave as quickly as possible.
Familiarity (familiar places):
Familiar spaces provide consistency. This means even if there are unpleasant sensory things in the environment, some are expected and so might not be as shocking when they happen. It’s also easier to plan and avoid sensory issues in a familiar place.
Safe space (somewhere to escape to): What can also help is having a place or space you can go to when you feel overwhelmed and need a break. This can help reduce sensory overload, even if it’s not used, as just knowing we can escape can lower stress levels and give us a sense of control.
Meltdowns and Shutdowns
A meltdown is an external response to stress such as crying, screaming, and trying to get away – you might consider it a panic attack. And during something like a meltdown, people are not always aware of what’s going on around them.
It’s a fight or flight response.
In those moments, people can’t always process other information in their environment because their immediate attention is on escaping and removing whatever is causing them pain.
So what you can do to help that person is to reduce sensory stimuli such as the source of that stress. People often need time to calm down. And even after this, they may have a dip, where they feel tired or sleepy or go into a shutdown.
What you have to remember is a meltdown isn’t something that somebody can control it is a panic attack.
We might often hear others mix up meltdowns and tantrums. The challenge is that a tantrum can very quickly turn into a meltdown. Tantrums are voluntary, and they’re looking for your attention, feedback, or seeking to gain something from you. A meltdown is trying to escape or replace the stressful thing with something consistent and controlled; so they may not even be aware of you, and they’re definitely not trying to gain your attention.
A shutdown is an internal response to stress, such as going quiet, withdrawing, and hiding. They can happen suddenly or in graduations where the person slowly becomes more and more shut down.
As they shut down and autistic person’s body language may close off, they may become less vocal, quieter, and more withdrawn. We generally see more shutdowns in adults and fewer meltdowns.
I get shutdowns. For me: I become less verbal, quiet, withdrawn, and eventually, I end up staring into space, unable to respond.
When I’m shutdown, I can still understand what’s going on around me, though everything feels further away: I’m more withdrawn, so any light, sound, noise, or touch on my skin will feel quiet or duller to me. Whereas for other people, those would hurt, and they may not be able to process language. They may not even be aware of what’s going on in the environment at all. Whereas other people can be very aware.
The best advice is to remove what’s causing the stress and allow the person time to recover. Some people may like certain sensory things, such as deep pressure. This may help them feel safe and provide them with something to focus on, which may allow them to come out of a shutdown or meltdown quicker. But please make sure that they’ve agreed to that because otherwise, you might be making it worse.