From what I’ve found, I tend to be more easily overloaded by certain stimuli than do most people. The same tends to be true for a lot of others on the autism spectrum with whom I’ve talked, though it’s hardly universal amongst autistics.
So today, I thought I’d talk about what sensory overload is like for me.
First of all, it’s important to note what sorts of situations can actually make me feel overloaded.
My quirky auditory processing can lead to sensory overload quite easily in the right circumstances. In particular, it’s not so much the loudness of sound as it is the noisiness that makes me feel overloaded (though loudness does have an amplifying effect on overload). What I mean by ‘noisiness,’ for lack of a better explanation, is how cluttered and how dissonant the sound is; for instance, a bunch of people having separate conversations at the same time, or a bunch of TVs tuned to different stations, would be ‘noisy,’ while instruments playing in harmony would be far more bearable.
Visual stimuli can also be overloading, and here, too, it’s more a matter of noise than brightness. Though the brightness of light does have an amplifying effect on how overloaded I feel, once again, it’s not the primary cause of overload. What I’ve found produces visual overload most easily is rapid motion, particularly rapid flashes or flickers. Indeed, it need not even be motion that’s visible to most people; for instance, I find it very uncomfortable to look at a CRT computer screen with a refresh rate of 60 hertz or lower, because I can literally see the screen flickering. (I do not have this problem with LCD screens, as they are constantly lit.) Visual clutter can also contribute to overload, though it’s not the sole contributor; one only needs to look at my cluttered apartment and how comfortable I can be in it for evidence of that. 🙂
So what does overload feel like, then? In some cases, it leads to a feeling of physical discomfort, for lack of a better explanation, though I can’t really describe how it feels uncomfortable; in those cases, the only recourse is to escape to a less stimulating environment or to cover my ears or close my eyes. In other cases, the effect is a sort of ‘shutdown’ of the affected senses, in which some information is lost as a sort of automatic compensation for the overload. Honestly, I’m not sure which reaction is worse: though the painful sensation obviously feels worse, the sensory shutdown can actually be more dangerous. Just imagine trying to cross a busy street when you can’t be sure you’re getting the whole visual signal, and you’ll have a pretty good idea why that’s the case.
(This is also among the reasons why I prefer not to drive, particularly in heavier traffic: the heavier the traffic, the more motion there is to constantly keep track of, the more cluttered the visual environment, and the more quickly I go into this sort of sensory shutdown.)
So if I seem to be oddly uncomfortable with light or noise, or if I seem to be spacing out for no apparent reason, please ask me whether the environment I’m in is comfortable. You may be surprised to find that something which is perfectly comfortable for you may very well be completely unbearable for me.