What is Sensory Overload Like?
Let’s talk about sensory overload. What is it and what’s it like from an insider’s perspective? I’ll try to shed some light on it, but keep in mind I’m just one autistic person. Other autistic people may have a different experience.
Autistic sensory overload happens when the outside world becomes so overwhelming that the brain can’t process any more input. Specifically, it means being overwhelmed by sensory inputs: sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell. For example, I can become overwhelmed by bright lights, loud noises, and too many unrelated objects being close together arranged in no discernible pattern.
Have you ever been lost in a lecture before? You were listening to the professor and you knew all the words they were using, but their sentences carried no meaning. Their sentences may have even sounded like they meant something, but you couldn’t decipher it. It was just noise. That’s what sensory overload is like for me, except on a more global level. My brain becomes slow at building higher-order abstractions out of raw sensory inputs.
For example, during sensory overload, it’s harder for me to find things. It’s not that I don’t see them. It’s just that my brain stops labeling what I’m seeing and giving meaning to it. It’s closer to pure seeing. The normal object recognition filter applied to seeing is diminished. There’s just a sphere of color and light full of nameless purposeless objects.
You might be thinking “How the hell can object recognition cease? It’s automatic.”, and to that I’d respond “The same way sentences lose meaning when you’re lost in a lecture”. The lecture either makes sense or it doesn’t, and whether or not it makes sense in the moment is fundamentally a mysterious process. We can talk about the psychology of why certain lectures make more sense to certain people and we can come up with post hoc rationalizations about why particular lectures make sense to us. But ultimately, from our own subjective perspective, it’s a mystery. All we can say is “it just makes sense” or “it just doesn’t make sense”.
So how is it that I lose the ability to recognize objects? It’s the same as with the lecture. I just do. If you’ve never experienced sensory overload yourself, there’s no way for me to communicate it to you. That analogy is the best I can do.
I should mention that I don’t completely lose my ability to interpret the world around me during sensory overload. Sensory overload isn’t binary. It’s a continuous spectrum that goes from not overwhelmed at all to very overwhelmed. How overwhelmed I am is proportional to how much higher-order mental processing that ceases. For me, low to mild levels of sensory overload are actually manageable for a while without going into a shutdown or meltdown.
There are people who say I ought to pay more attention, that I ought to try harder and just overcome sensory overload. Those people are under the false notion of the separate self. They think there’s a separate seer which is I, in addition to what is seen, and that this separate seer me isn’t trying hard enough to see. But you don’t have to try to see. “Trying to see” means focusing on something other than seeing.
Read my writing and try not to understand it. Do you still understand it? What about now? Do you understand the meaning of these sentences? Really try hard not to. Is it working? Just how hard would you have to try to not understand what you’re reading right now? Is it even possible? Not if you know English. So the same principle applies in the other direction even though it’s less intuitive. I cannot force objects to have labels and meanings or for sentences to make sense when they don’t.
This is why it’s so dickish when neurotypicals tell us high-functioning autistic people we’re not trying hard enough or we’re not really paying attention. Sometimes they’re just ignorant, but oftentimes there’s some hate there too.
There is no attention-payer in addition to the attention. There is no understander in addition to the understanding. There is no “one” responsible for those processes or their inadequacy. For the same reason, I don’t hate the dickish neurotypicals who criticize autistic people. They’re not ultimately responsible for their hate either. I don’t hate anyone and I don’t think anything anyone could do could make me hate them. But I don’t have to hold people ultimately responsible to point out their dickish behavior.
We can’t control when our brains get overwhelmed or the consequences of that. I think that’s the key takeaway here. If you understand that us autistic people can’t help being overwhelmed by the outside world, unless you’re just a habitually hateful or frustrated person, I think it will help you be more compassionate and understanding and less frustrated around us.