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What is Sensory Overload? How do I cope?

by Lucy Hilary

Sensory overload happens when something around us overstimulates one or more of our senses. That could be a loud TV, crowded room or smelly food halls. There is suddenly too much information coming in through our senses for our brain to process.

Autistic people have a different wiring to their brains so that senses are heightened. Certain textures can cause autistic people pain on touch which is why some are unable to wear masks in stores because doing so causes sensory overload and inability to function.

My sensory triggers are crowds, noises, some textures and some lights.

My sensory triggers are heightened by:

– Lack of sleep

– Lack of routine

– Stress

– My menstrual cycle

– Lack of sensory diet

– Overstretching myself with trying to be neurotypical

Being unable to self soothe also known as stimming I will have a meltdown.

What is a meltdown? A meltdown is an intense response to overwhelming circumstances—a complete loss of behavioural control. People with autism often have difficulty expressing when they are feeling overly anxious or overwhelmed, which leads to an involuntary coping mechanism—a meltdown

My meltdowns cause a fight and flight response. An office environment is actually my worst sensory nightmare, but I enjoy company and working with a team (to a point) I just don’t enjoy it when women wear acrylic nails and type on a keyboard as the noise is too much for me.

Before I was diagnosed there were many signs. I could not eat in the same room as my family I would go and eat alone.I would leave for school early because the noise of my brother’s spoon hitting a bowl was too much for me to bare. I would also lash out in anger with words or slamming doors and throwing things at walls just to make the noise stop. When I got in from school it was straight up to my room with music playing loudly. I was also irritated by the presence of people.

When I started working in an office, I would often have meltdowns and retreat within myself. The bathroom became my escape. I need an hours lunch to reset and a lot of companies now only offer 30 minutes which is a deal breaker for me. I just thought I was a freak. Noises don’t bother other people and I can’t be sat between 2 people absolute NO!

It was a fine line between being at my desk and not having a full meltdown. Quiet offices enhance the noises so headphones are an absolute must for me and a place to escape to.

My new place of work has a comfy meeting room and is putting in accommodations to help me on my return and I am in the process of making my team aware of my disability so they understand why I have certain accommodations. Honesty is the best policy, supressing it just makes it worse and hinders working relationships on days of sensory overload.

I avoid triggers such as Primark as those paper Primark bags are a massive trigger and I can tell you it’s a Primark shopping bag from the noise it makes without even looking at it!!!

I prefer shops that are more spread out, organised, some background music and that are tidy.

I have a sensory diet to help with sensory overload this includes:

– Exercise especially swimming

– Making timetables for the week ahead a plan A, B and C one

– Using fidget toys such as fidget cubes, putty and at the minute little figurines and balls to help with stress

-Sitting in a dark room

– Playing with the dogs

– Reading or playing Nintendo

– Leaving my phone in a different room

– Stim dancing – This is just listening to music and releasing any pent-up energy through rocking out.

When I have a meltdown, I struggle to contain my emotions. I will need to leave the room immediately or I will end up inconsolable and unable to communicate what is wrong. It is best to let me have a moment to compose myself and return without making a big deal.

Marks and Spencer’s self-service causes me massive issues and I can no longer use those machines. They are slow, the screens are too close together and there is not enough space causing people to bump into you. There have been many times I have had to just leave that place and let my partner deal with it.

Be mindful

Also please be mindful, autism is something you grow into.

Children struggle with their emotions normally so if you do see a child in clear distress, please just ask the parent or carer of that child if they are ok. Do not assume the child is having a temper tantrum. Don’t stare, don’t give your opinion just support.

Disability is not a dirty word – Discrimination is.

Across Autism Acceptance Week, Barbour ABI will be releasing blogs discussing more aspects of Autism and videos from my colleagues. Don’t miss out, follow our LinkedIn profile to keep up to date!

About the author

Picture of Lucy Hilary

Lucy Hilary

Researcher at Barbour ABI

Lucy has worked at Barbour ABI as a Telephone researcher for 18 months. Prior to this role Lucy worked in Telecommunications on the operational and connective side for a total of 10 years.

Lucy's move into construction came because she has a degree in Geography and she had hit the ceiling in communications. There wasn’t much more for her to learn so Lucy decided on a career more aligned with her passions.

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