View Full Version : sensory overload


speedo
09-17-05, 11:25 PM
Here isa great writeup of what sensory overload is like:


http://home.att.net/~ascaris1/overload.html

the text follows:


<big style="font-weight: bold;">Sensory Overload Explained</big>



On the AutAdvo list, one of the NT members asked about sensory overload. This is certainly a topic of importance, given how strongly it affects the life of the autistic person, so I posted a rather detailed reply. I was surprised by the feedback I received for that post... it was overwhelmingly positive, and several people asked that I post it on my site so that others can read it. I was happy to do that, certainly, as helping NTs to understand autistics is one of the purposes of this site.

I will include the original citations from the post to which I replied, since the responses I typed were geared toward the questions as posted. Those original questions will have the greater than '>' symbol in front of them.



> What type of sensory overload? Is it auditory, visual, other, all?

</pre> It is different with each of us, but the short answer is 'all.' It can be any of the senses... I know that loud noises, or even persistent quiet ones, add significantly to the sensory load, and certain types of noises are worse than others. In time, my nervous system will return to normal if no other loads are placed on it, but if there are more noises or other loads present, the stress level will build faster than I can burn it off, and I will get overloaded.

I have described it like this. It is as if there is a reservoir of sorts that each of us has. This reservoir starts off empty, but the things we experience throughout the day fill it up. Any sensory load (which I define as stimulus that the nervous system is describing to the brain-- in other words, anything that can be felt) or other nervous system load will cause the reservoir to take on more fluid. It does not have to be unpleasant-- even pleasant kinds of sensory load (like enjoying a movie at a theater-- I like it, but it does present a notable sensory load) fill up the reservoir. Things like the smell of people's perfume, bright lights, constant motion (I cannot tolerate seeing too much motion, especially if there is more than one velocity of motion), noise (the more painful or annoying, the worse), etc., all tend to fill up the reservoir.

Other things also cause the level in the reservoir to rise. Social contact does this. It is not just the noise of people talking and seeing them move that causes the sensory load. For one thing, I have auditory processing problems, so I really have to work to understand spoken words. That causes the reservoir level to rise. Being ready to interact, or what I call being in interactive mode, is also difficult, and causes the level to rise. Finally, thinking about what the other person said and devising a response real-time (as opposed to email, where I can respond at my leisure) also causes the reservoir level to rise rather quickly. The more difficult the interaction, the more quickly the level rises. In other words, if I am talking to other autistics, it rises slower, because I can talk more freely than I can with NTs, where I always have to try to guess what needs to be said. That is exhausting, and that exhaustion shows as rapidly rising levels in that reservoir.

I am stressed most of the time. Just for the fun of it, I took an online stress test (using the classical definition of stress as a bad thing, which is not exactly true, as I will get to in a moment) this morning, and it said that I had a stress level of 7%... "Your stress level barely registers." Oh, if only that were true. I don't have any
way to measure this, but I think I am probably more stressed than most people that do all of the stressful things that would give them a high score on that test. Things that are low-stress or that reduce stress in NTs are horrible for me. Stress, of course, adds to sensory load. Fear, anger, and any other powerful emotion makes the level in the reservoir rise rapidly. Happy contentedness makes the level go down, but positive anticipation, suspense, or excitement, at least for me,
cause the level to rise, not fall. Having things not go according to expectation, or having the routine broken, causes the level to go up. Indulging my perseverations (like researching a topic with which I am obsessed) reduces the level in the reservoir, even if it involves things that are usually stressful, like interacting with people.

Just about everything I do outside the home makes the fluid level go up. As you can see, living in this world is in itself a highly stressful, sensory-loading kind of thing for my kind. Things that you do not notice can cause huge problems for us.

When I get time alone in a dark, quiet place, I can burn off some of the sensory load and cause the reservoir to become less full. Rocking, flapping, and stimming also help me to lower the level in the reservoir. Our tendencies to isolate ourselves, to flap or rock, to routinize our lives, to put things in a specific order, et cetera, are, in part, ways of reducing the level in the reservoir, or keeping it from filling up in the first place. In my case, I do many of these things as the reservoir begins to fill... so it fills much more slowly. My stims are vital to me being able to cope with the world, and I do them wherever I am if I need to. Others have been taught not to do these in public, so they let the reservoir fill up until they get to a place where they can recover from the strain and decompress. This is less
efficient than doing so as the reservoir first begins to fill, because the higher the level in the reservoir, the more quickly the reservoir fills in response to the next sensory load event. It's not a linear thing. When I am calm (reservoir empty), I can handle a lot more without adding to the reservoir level than I can when that reservoir is half full.

Keep in mind that I use "stress" more broadly than a lot of people. Stress can have many forms, and not all of them are bad. Hearing a funny joke that makes me laugh is a kind of stress. Riding a roller coaster, which I enjoy, is pretty stressful (it adds sensory load, which fills the reservoir). The difference is that many of the eustresses (good stress) also cause a release of endorphins, which helps to keep the stress in check.

When the reservoir fills, obviously, the ability to tolerate further sensory or nervous system load is nil. Any more sensory load will cause the reservoir to overflow or burst (it's just an analogy, so you pick the image that works for you). Overload is a failure to manage nervous system load levels (a slightly more accurate way to put it than sensory load, since some of the load is from within, as with emotion).



> Sensory overload can lead to what type of meltdown?

</pre> Any type. Actually, the term I would use would be overload-- a meltdown, I think, is usually a severe tantrum with a total collapse of coping ability and frontal lobe function, which is one of several possible responses to overload. In my case, I tend to shut down, not have a tantrum. I can feel my ability to think disappear. My voice becomes more monotonic than normal, and I start talking in gibberish. People ask me things when I am in that state, and all I can say is "I
don't know." I really don't know when I am like that... I barely know my name. In that state, my brain is ignoring most of the senses, so I have a pronounced tunnel-vision effect, and I am all but unaware of sounds around me. I can't smell anything in that state.

With the frontal lobe shut down, there is not much nervous system load, so I do not usually get worse than that. I have, though, especially when I was younger. Many times in school, the teacher would notice that I was not moving, just staring straight ahead with glazed eyes. She would talk to me, and I would not even notice. She got closer and addressed me from right next to me, and I would not notice. I was offline, for the most part.

Some of my kind have a tantrum, yell, hit, or do other things when they overload. I don't tend to do that. I just zombify.

It is distinctly unpleasant to be overloaded, and it takes a lot longer to recover from an overload than it would to recover from having the reservoir 90% full. Once the reservoir gets more than, say, 75% full, you'll see some signs that overload is coming. I can feel it when I have reached that point, or when the sensory load is so great that the reservoir is filling very rapidly. To others around me, it can be seen as sharp, fast rocking and a lot of wiping of my palms down my face.

(http://home.att.net/%7Eascaris1/index.html) (http://home.att.net/%7Eascaris1/index.html)

Jaycee
09-17-05, 11:41 PM
For people with Sensory dysfunction the stimulation or the time it takes for the effect of stimulation is at least 4 times longer than for other people. That's what causes overloads. The "resevoir" is not emptying fast enough for all the information it's recieving.
This is a great way of explaining things but please do not think that if you have SID that automatically have autism.

I go on social overload on occasion especially around the holidays. After going to about the 3 or 4 th party or even two parties in a weekend. i'm ready for my "detox time" I go into my room and read for several hours with the doors closed. My husband takes care of the kids for the most part although they can come in at any time.

When I was a teenager I'd go for a couple of days without returning calls from my friends (especially during the summer when it was easier and I was working all of the time). I'd regenerate and then be ready to go again.

Kids and young adults chew a lot to soothe ragged nerves. It could be one reason why people stress eat.

.

speedo
09-18-05, 12:18 AM
Correct, a sensory problem is not autism by default.

Furthermore, not everyone who is autistic has sensory issues.

Me :D

netsavy006
11-03-05, 10:31 AM
This is the kind of info I was asking about Speedo (from another thread...), Thanks for the help.... :):o;):cool::rolleyes::p

Here isa great writeup of what sensory overload is like:


http://home.att.net/~ascaris1/overload.html (http://home.att.net/%7Eascaris1/overload.html)

INaBOX
12-03-05, 04:36 AM
That was an interesting read. I work with children with Autism so it was 'fun' reading that while thinking of them and wonder why they act the way they do at what times of the day.

Jaycee, reading what your wrote (about your overload scenario during the holidays) reminds me of an introvert. It's how you recharge your batteries - so to speak. I'm an introvert. If I don't get my solitude time I get irritable and cranky. When I'm fully charged I'm able to be sociable for several days. After that, screen my phone calls and lock my doors. I don't even want to be bothered. On the flip side of that there's extroverts. They recharge their batteries by socializing. If they aren't interacting with other people THEY get irritable and cranky. Once they're fully charged they have no problem working in solitude all day long. They used to say that being an introvert in a company was considered a 'bad' trait. Now they see both as highly valuable as they often balance each other out.

subliminal
12-03-05, 07:09 AM
(disclaimer: sorry about the length...!)



oh wow. i am a little confused about SID, i mean it all sounds very familiar... but most of the stuff on this board sounds familiar. is this related to ADD/HD?

(was my euphoria at finding a 'label' to stamp on and explain away my nameless losing battle a little premature?)

there are so many acronyms...

what i am curious about SID:

someone said, some people overload, others underload. the former retreating from stimulus, the latter seeking excessive stimulus...

well, i do both of those things in the 'extreme'. meaning, i am often totally confused, not aware of 'space boundaries' glom all over people, repeat stimulus over and over until it causes me enough damage that i realize i should stop, inflict pain on myself, rocking, wringing my hands, ... etc.

i also become completely overwhelmed by some stimulus, i get instantly and overwhelmingly motion sick, in groups of too many people i often lose my bearings and get very agitated, talking to someone with whom i dont feel an 'understanding' i get frustrated, temper, and emotional... its a lot harder for me to describe the things that overwhelm me, because i am often not really aware of it happening. sometimes i just have to close my eyes/plug my ears/not be touched, preferably wrap my head in a blanket and sit alone for a while... but i dont usually see it coming until it is too late. and i have a hell of a time explaining it to people... especially since i cant really talk, or function at all in that state.
i think it usually has to do with ... um,... ug, things i have to do (like packing, filling out forms), interactions with people (unclear social environments, talking to professors/doctors/counsellors, any time someone insists on having my attention while i am focused on something else),
but it also happens physically, with clothing, heat/cold, proximity of people, smell, air, light, sound, whatever... its fine fine (or, i am just not paying attention/noticing it) and then suddenly it is unbearable, and i have to get away somehow. just up and drop everything, walk out, take off my clothes, wrap something around my head to block it out, etc.


now, i did not really think i was going to jump on the SID bandwagon (humour...?) until i read the following...



> Sensory overload can lead to what type of meltdown?

Any type. Actually, the term I would use would be overload-- a meltdown, I think, is usually a severe tantrum with a total collapse of coping ability and frontal lobe function, which is one of several possible responses to overload. In my case, I tend to shut down, not have a tantrum. I can feel my ability to think disappear. My voice becomes more monotonic than normal, and I start talking in gibberish. People ask me things when I am in that state, and all I can say is "I
don't know." I really don't know when I am like that... I barely know my name. In that state, my brain is ignoring most of the senses, so I have a pronounced tunnel-vision effect, and I am all but unaware of sounds around me. I can't smell anything in that state.

With the frontal lobe shut down, there is not much nervous system load, so I do not usually get worse than that. I have, though, especially when I was younger. Many times in school, the teacher would notice that I was not moving, just staring straight ahead with glazed eyes. She would talk to me, and I would not even notice. She got closer and addressed me from right next to me, and I would not notice. I was offline, for the most part.

Some of my kind have a tantrum, yell, hit, or do other things when they overload. I don't tend to do that. I just zombify.

It is distinctly unpleasant to be overloaded, and it takes a lot longer to recover from an overload than it would to recover from having the reservoir 90% full. Once the reservoir gets more than, say, 75% full, you'll see some signs that overload is coming. I can feel it when I have reached that point, or when the sensory load is so great that the reservoir is filling very rapidly. To others around me, it can be seen as sharp, fast rocking and a lot of wiping of my palms down my face.

(http://home.att.net/%7Eascaris1/index.html)


i have yet to find any explanation through ADD literature for my 'fits'. much worse when i was younger, but i still get them. i used to become totally... i dont even know how to explain it. crying, unable to control my mind/body, babbling incoherent, smashing my head into floor/wall, totally freaking out.
its not so dramatic now, i am better at seeing it coming and isolating myself. in which case i just lay in a quite, private place and use some meditation stuff i learned to go inside my body, and after a while i 'get better'.

the problem, is that sometime i am trying to talk to my professor about why my paper is 'totally off topic' and i just cant seem to communicate, and i can see that he thinks i am either stupid or a freak of nature, and the more agitated i become, the more paralyzed i am mentally, more incoherent, until i am a blubbering, angery, helpless mess.

this is not good for my academic PR. i dont feel great about it when i am talking to my doctor either, although it's a bit safer with her, but i still feel ... stupid.

or when i am talking with my boyfriend, and he is telling me something i am not very interested in, or cant understand what i am trying to say, and i get so incredibly angery... and i am supposed to stay and 'work it out' but if i dont get away i will ... flip and say a bunch of things that i dont mean, in a kind of blind desperationg to get away...

and no matter what is going on in my head, it is played out physically with my body for all to see, even if it is trivial. and it is usually misinterpreted by others, and causes reactions in the people around me that catch me totally off guard. like how i move around in my chair, or grip something, or stare off into space, or suddenly get up/leave/change the subject.

why cant i control these things?

is this related to SID?