Have you ever wondered what sensory overload feels like to autistic people?
This is an autism sensory overload simulation about what it is like for someone with autism spectrum disorder (ASD/Asperger’s Syndrome) to walk around a normal town centre.
I have made two versions of this video, one with an explanation about what the video represents and one of just the sensory overload simulation.
In this first version of the video (the second video of just the simulation is further down the page) I talk about the sensory overload simulation and about my experiences so that you can better understand the simulation and why I have made it the way I have.
There are no sounds added, all sound in the video is what was present. When people audio record things they are often surprised by how much noise there is on the recording even in quiet environments.
This is a sensory overload simulation to give you a representation of my experience designed to try to give you a feeling of what it is like to experience the world from within my head.
Autistic people often have some areas of hyper-sensitivity to stimuli and other areas of low-sensitivity to stimuli. For me personally I struggle with finding the world an overwhelmingly bright and noisy place. I struggle with the constant overwhelming chaotic movement, everything being painfully bright making it so that in ordinary daylight I can barely see a few metres in front of me unless I squint or wear sunglasses and force myself to endure the pain and stinging eyes and mental overload of all the information. The same with sound, there is so much chaotic painfully loud sound that can come from all around me making it difficult to focus on the sounds I should be focusing on, like if my wife is talking to me. When things are overwhelming visually, this also impacts on my ability to focus my hearing for example on my wife talking to me. I will explain further down the page about some of my strategies.
I seem to have under-sensitivity generally to tastes and smells. It takes quite a lot of flavour for me to notice it. I always point out to people that I will be unappreciative of food they make me, I find most things, other than strong flavours bland. For me, the thing I appreciate most is textures, I can find things my wife finds soft, feel like sandpaper to me, so I have a sensitivity to textures, but I like certain textures, foods I like are because of the texture not the taste, clothes I like are due to the textures.
The next video is of just the sensory overload simulation without the explanation of my experiences of sensory overload and about why the sensory overload simulation was made the way it was made to represent sensory overload.
I made this short version as I felt it would be easier for people to share who perhaps just want to share the sensory overload simulation video and not a 27 minute video mainly of me explaining my experience of sensory overload.
This isn’t meant to be a literal representation, I talk more about this in the other video, but this is meant to be a video which hopefully for a short time evokes some of the feelings and confusion I experience when out and about. It was more important to me to give you a sense of what it feels like to help you understand those on the autistic spectrum when they suddenly react snappy or are seemingly suddenly anxious or angry and want to get out of the situation – suddenly entering a fight, flight, freeze state.
I mention in the other video about the difficulty of making an accurate representation, for example, during the day when the sun is bright if I don’t have sunglasses on I can probably only see a metre or two in front of me everything else is painfully bright with just flashes of movement, colours and shapes. It isn’t exactly as demonstrated in this video, but with my technical knowledge this was the closest I could get to my camera giving a taste of this.
I have written various strategies in my autism books. In relation to sensory overload, my preferred option is to not be in the situation in the first place if that is a possibility, but I am aware that I could so easily shut down my life. I could, by default, sit at home in a dim, quiet den and stay there. Because I want to try to fit in with society to some extent, I want to be a husband who goes places with his wife, I want to make enough income to live on, so I know I have to put myself into situations which cause me sensory overload and have to find ways of managing this.
When I am in situations I frequently wear noise-cancelling headphones. I usually have relaxation music playing into my ears to also help me remain calm and give me something to focus on. I usually wear sunglasses when outside and when in shops that have bright lights or lots of movement. These can help to dull the situations somewhat, but still don’t work perfectly, If it is very bright or busy or noisy I still end up becoming overwhelmed. If I can I go inside my mind, like meditating, focusing on something like my breathing, or focusing on something inside my mind like looking out to sea or walking through woodland or countryside, or exploring an idea or concept using mental imagery. This shuts me off a lot from the external world. I am likely to have a glazed over look and be unresponsive to external stimuli like people talking to me.
If I have to hold it together and not go inside my mind because I have to teach a course, or am attending a course or the cinema or a party etc, then I will focus on relaxing my shoulders and on maintaining calm breathing and slow movements and focus on keeping myself relaxed while being in that situation. I will find things to focus intensely on which can then start to shut everything else out, so I might stare intensely at my food or a glass I am drinking from or a candle on a table, or an object. If I am in communication with someone I will try to focus all of my attention on that person, taking in every detail about them and paying attention to finer and finer details so that I go into a deep externally focused trance on that person. This helps me to shut everything else out and become unaware of everything else going on around me.
All of this can take a lot of mental effort. I struggle to maintain it for extended periods of time and end up needing to decompress when I get the chance where I need to be in a dark, quiet, low-stimulation environment for a time afterwards and the more frequent I am in high-stimulation environments the more low-stimulation I need, so if I am on a one day course I might be able to re-set myself that evening, but if I am on a week long course it may take me a few days after the course to fully get myself back calmer.
If I start struggling in a situation I become increasingly likely to react bluntly. I reach a point where I want to escape the situation and will just leave the situation. If I am in conversation with someone I may tell them I am leaving now, if I am not in conversation with someone I will likely just walk out. If people stop me leaving – like on work courses or in work etc, then I will tell them they have no choice, I am going and will do whatever I have to do to get myself out of the situation. If at this point someone tried physically to stop me I would do whatever I had to do to make sure I got out of the situation.
I’ve seen many autistic teens I’ve worked with who have been expelled from school react like this. You listen to their story about what happened and can recognise that they were overwhelmed, they entered fight or flight mode and needed to escape, they were stopped from doing so, so they fight to create a way out and then get in trouble for being violent by the teacher who was stopping them from leaving the classroom. It doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be consequences, there should, but more insight and awareness is needed about how the autistic person’s mind was working in that situation and what can be done to facilitate helpful and healthy responses in the future, rather than increasing the chances of negative responses. The consequence doesn’t usually need to be expelling or suspending the student, but instead looking at supportive and collaborative consequences as the core part of the consequence.
I also have some autism books I have written about my experiences as an autistic person, my professional experience and knowledge and tips and strategies for autistic people, their friends, family, employers, teachers, etc… If you are interested, you can find out more about them here.