📆 May 27, 2023 | ⏱️ 4 minute read | 🏷️ autism

What is Sensory Overload Like? (Attempt #2)

In the second half of my last entry about autistic sensory overload, I think I may have gotten too off-topic overemphasizing how autistic people can’t control their sensory overload as opposed to actually explaining what sensory overload is like. So I’m going to try to properly explain what it’s like in this entry.

Although there are many forms of sensory overload, loud noises are responsible for me becoming overloaded most of the time. So I’m going to focus on the special case of auditory overload. Please keep in mind that I’m just one autistic person and my experiences probably don’t accurately reflect those of all autistic people.

The first thing to understand is that autistic sensory overload has nothing whatsoever to do with having better sensory organs than everybody else. I do not have better eyes or ears than anybody else. I do not have a better nose or tongue. Nor do I have more receptors to enhance my sense of touch or anything like that. What’s different is how my brain processes sensory inputs.

Basically, my brain filters less input than neurotypicals (normal people). In other words, I hear/taste/touch/smell/feel everything at once. It’s a very powerful and at times overwhelming experience that neurotypicals cannot relate to. For example, imagine I’m at a standard party. Even with someone directly in front of me, it’s incredibly hard for me to concentrate on what they’re telling me not because I’m not listening, but because I’m also helplessly parsing the five other conversations going on around me at the same time and there’s just not much attention/brainpower left for the conversation I’m actually having.

So what happens subjectively is I start understanding fragments of sentences here and there from all the conversations going on around me while my brain “tunes out” the person talking to me. My brain is receiving so much auditory input that it can no longer effectively process its environment as a whole. Keeping up with what’s going on feels like running a mental marathon. Now there’s three components to why this is stressful:

  1. Sensory overstimulation causes physiological stress
  2. Since I can’t process my environment in its entirety, I can’t effectively respond to it, putting me in potential danger
  3. Since my brain is preoccupied with processing sensory input, I cannot mask my autism as well, causing social anxiety

One thing that makes sensory overload even more stressful is that neurotypicals seem to have difficulty accepting it. If someone tries to tell me something while I’m overwhelmed, I can explain to them “I’m autistic and I’m overwhelmed right now. I cannot understand you. Whatever you’re saying, please tell me later.” but that usually doesn’t do any good. It usually just prompts them to start repeating themselves, thinking that I didn’t hear them properly or something.

But when I don’t understand neurotypicals, it’s not because I don’t hear them. What’s happening is that their words have no meaning attached because my ability to understand language is offline. I can make out that they’re saying words as opposed to gibberish, but I have no idea what those words mean. Repeating themself with different words won’t change that. It doesn’t matter how inconvenient this is for them because my autistic brain doesn’t function according to the convenience of neurotypicals.

If I continue being overwhelmed by my senses, I experience a shutdown. From the inside, a shutdown looks like a breakdown of the ability to perceive and interpret what’s happening in my environment. Language and physical objects no longer have any meaning. There’s only raw sensory awareness of light, colors, sounds, smells and sensations. From the outside, I look frozen. I become temporarily mute, lose my ability to mask or socialize, and may abruptly leave the scene before matters get worse.

Shutdowns are caused by the environment I’m in being too stimulating. They are involuntary, extremely unpleasant, and stressful. The only way I can recover from a shutdown is by giving my brain a break from all the sensory stimuli. That means being alone (where I don’t have to socialize) in a non-stimulating quiet place for at least a few hours. During that time, my brain slowly comes back to reality again. I regain my ability to perceive my environment, socialize, and reason and I can reenter the world.

You may have also heard about autistic meltdowns as an alternative to shutdowns. Some autistic people claim meltdowns are triggered by sensory overload. In my experience though, meltdowns are more related to stress, anxiety, and emotions. So I’ll discuss meltdowns in a separate entry.

So I hope that explains a bit better what sensory overload is like and what’s going on from the inside when autistic people experience it. Thanks for reading.