Autistic people experience the world differently to non-autistic people.
For us, the world is intensified. Colours. Feelings. Tastes. Details. Temperatures. We can be hyper-sensitive to noise, lights, touching. This is not good, bad, better-or-worse… but it is very draining, and everyone on the spectrum is differently-sensitive too.
Everybody needs time-out from this fast-paced, frantic, modern world occasionally: to have silence, to metaphorically ‘press pause,’ to scream SHUT UUUUUUP…. this is normal. The world is not really built for autistic people however, and there are obviously consequences to this.
A sensory ‘meltdown’ is like an anxiety-attack caused by too-much-world. It can stop you from being able to sense your own body’s signals like pain, hunger, the need to go to the toilet. It can make you sick; it can make you ‘shut down’ like an overwhelmed computer, unresponsive. It can cause physical pain; it can make you slur your words; it can make you disorientated; it can make you depressed. The more you ‘mask’ your sensory-demons though, the worse the consequences will be… you won’t win.
It has taken 30 years of coping and ‘covering-up’ to realise that this is what has been happening to me all my life, and it is only one ‘star’ in the vast cluster of ‘stars’ that makes a ‘Humalien’ brain… How can I not have known?
It is my 31st birthday at the Bellemoor pub.
Someone speaks into a microphone. There’s a band playing The Beatles in the background and many close voices. Close yet indecipherable. Glasses clink together and clunk back onto the table. Laughter. Chair legs scratch the floor and the half open fire-exit door bangs open, closed, and open-closed, letting in the freezing January wind.
There is too much noise.
Noise feels hot.
It scalds the edges of my skull or something.
My pounding heart pumps lava-blood around my body hard and fast.
I cannot breathe.
Suddenly I am a volcano. Building up to a ‘meltdown’. Shaking, sweating. Where does ‘loud’ start? Does it start sooner in me than in other people? They seem to like the noise, they talk over the noise, and they make the noise noisier.
I am in John Lewis, about to sing with Sing Now Choir.
There are Christmas lights hanging from the roof through the centre of the store, flashing erratically. Stressed shoppers are going up and down the escalators, bustling, lefts-and-rights, distracting-directions. There is Christmas music playing. Father Christmas is shaking a bucket of money. Choir members are jostling in to lines and crowds are forming. Someone is making a store announcement as Jack asks me to “press play” on the tracks and the background ‘din’ of ‘department store’ is vibrating my brain.
I walk away from the choir.
There are tears of failure: there is pain down both legs; there is the contradictory impulse to scream over the noise and press my hands against my ears at the same time. There is the voice inside saying that this is not socially acceptable behaviour. There is the knowledge that this will result in a day or two of exhaustion; the subsequent cancellation of plans, guilt, decreased confidence, isolation, shame, pain, fear and fury.
Autistic people develop protective responses called ‘stims’ that they may do in order to calm-down over-stimulating situations. These vary from person-to-person, and can include things like: hand-flapping, rocking, thumb-sucking. Some non-autistic people find this socially-strange, they might tell you to ‘sit still’ or give you a ‘funny look.’
When autistic people try to suppress their stims to ‘fit-in’, i.e. by sitting on their hands, it can reinforce stress and later make the stims more self-injurious: scratching skin, head-banging, hand-biting.
Stims and meltdowns are the things that can ‘blow-your-cover’: the uncontrollable giveaways that make people think: ahh maybe she is autistic…
But life on this planet would be easier for autistic people if their ‘stimming’ behaviours were more understood, accepted and allowed. Unfortunately, society is more inclined to cure Autism, than accept it.
‘Light touching’ can be distracting, startling and painful for a person experiencing a sensory-overload, but weight and pressure from a (permissible) hug, a weighted-blanket or a pet is extremely grounding, it slows the heart. (YouTube: ‘Grey’s Anatomy Big Hug’.)
Common triggering environments for sensory-overload are: cinemas, theatres, public toilets, shopping centres, public transport, crowds, birthdays and Christmas, and these (and any activity really) need VERY careful planning/routine and ‘sensory breaks.’ (It can be alienatingly-hard though, to need and take ‘time-out,’ when the people around you don’t require that.)
Sometimes anxiety in a person with sensory ‘abnormalities’ can look like anger, rudeness, or just an absolute silent-shutdown, but it is really just desperation and perhaps a frustrating inability to explain what is happening in that moment.
Sometimes even our thoughts about the world are just really, really loud.
Sensory overload is not only a side-effect of Autism, but anxiety disorders too. A terrific description of this can be heard in the lyrics of the clever song ‘Quiet’ by Tim Minchin, from Matilda the Musical.
Why don’t you give it a listen?