Normal Is Overrated

Musings and meanderings on the autistic spectrum

June 9, 2007

Overload, Discomfort and Shutdown

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.

Filed under: Sensory Issues — codeman38 @ 7:30 pm


  1. This sounds a lot like me, except the super-sensitivity to rapid flashes. I have general problems with things moving in my field of vision, not even necessarily fast – I found out recently that the speed of clouds is about all I can take. A perfect excuse to lie on the grass all day staring at the sky ;P

    I took the driving test and failed five times, and although this was back in continental Europe where streets are narrower and more cluttered and testing procedures notoriously dishonest, I knew right away that I was in no position to attempt driving. Unless I spend years practicing. But how can you argue against all friends and family who say “This time you will pass for sure! You have to!” as if it was some sort of lottery, completely independent of your abilities…

    (Here through your recent link in [lj username=”asperger”])

    Comment by syntaxia — June 12, 2007 @ 7:33 pm

  2. I have a feeling that some of you have experienced seeing patterns on rugs move or having someone wear a spiral patterned shirt that leaves you feeling physically ill. 2 How about being at a meeting when sudden cheers give you migrains or where music and voices of people talking seem like you are under attack. 3 How about when combinations of smells leave you totally unfunctional muntally & physically for more than just hours after the event. 4 How about trying to hear people when you are tired and it seems to you like you are trying to listen to 2 different radio stations at the same time. 5 How about hearing things at different speeds from both ears and processing words or thoughts out os sequence. 6 How about knowing only one way to a place and you have to focus hard to drive there every time. 7 How about reactions so strong leaving is the only option and going out becomes less and less. 8 I was told all of these auditory, sensory, spatial, directional and perception issues can be virally induced in adults. ever hear this before?

    PS can you take the drivers test in a more rural area, or at a lower traffic time of day or the slow day of the week? How about Learn the route in advance and practice parking where you will be tested and take the test in pieces. Try talking to the different testing officers maybe a different one will be more understanding and wont set you up to fail. Most people find the driving test stressful, and talking distracting. With any hearing problem you tend to try to lip read which is not good when driving. So ask him not to chat during your test. Get the directions first then proceed. Deaf people drive too. Around here an officer works with special needs drivers they pass eventuaally with colored glasses (people w dislexia and some Sensory integration issues find it helpful). If they are worked with maybe you will have the same luck.

    Comment by Ellen3Davis — March 3, 2008 @ 6:11 pm

  3. Ellen: I’ve experienced all of those, and it wouldn’t surprise me if a virus *could* cause them, but as far as I know, that wasn’t the case for me.

    As for driving, I could probably manage to pass the test, but that wouldn’t make me any safer of a driver on actual roads, where I get so overloaded that I’d zone out and likely crash into something I didn’t even notice…

    Comment by codeman38 — March 3, 2008 @ 9:28 pm

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