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Sensory Overload – what triggers it and how it feels for me.

I am writing this at half seven in the evening of what has been a fairly productive Monday. I was unsure when I woke up just how productive I would be able to be today because once again I am coming down from an overload. This particular overload lasted two full days; two days where I was unable to do anything, hardly even watch TV. I want to use this blog to talk a bit about why I was overloaded, and how getting this overload each time I go out to try and do something outside of my routine makes me feel.

So what brought on this two day overload? As you may or may not know – depending on when this blog goes up, and how closely you follow my blog – I went to an autism-friendly Mayoral Hustings on Thursday of last week organised by the Greater Manchester Autism Consortium and the N.A.S , and that is what brought on my overload on Friday and Saturday. This blog will not go in to any of the politics of the event, nor is it in anyway trying to criticize the event itself. It was a well run event that I enjoyed, and was glad to have had an invite to. But the fact that it was an autism-friendly event and therefore much better for me than a normal hustings would have been, and yet it still left me feeling so overloaded, should serve to drive home the point of the blog.

What does an overload feel like?

If we are talking about the lasting feeling of being overloaded, not the short-term feelings I get right before a meltdown – and for the point of this blog we are – then I would say an overload feels somewhat like I imagine a frozen computer might feel like. I can`t do anything. This might sound over the top, but I can assure you it is not; I can’t think clearly, I can’t make up my mind about anything, I can’t focus on anything, I can’t enjoy anything, and I can’t even do mindless things such as watch TV to relax. I am stuck; frozen for a day or two just wishing the time away till my overload clears and I can go back to my life. In fact sometimes this frozen feeling can last for a week or more. Sometimes there will be physical pain too; my ears and head will hurt to the point where the smallest of noises can induce pain, and my body will ache and feel tired in the same way it might after a heavy work-out. I find myself stuck in a state of feeling the time pass; knowing the day is going to waste, with me doing nothing more than looking at the wall and wishing the time away, and yet being unable to bring myself to do anything. And this in turn leads only to more stress, more frustration and often to meltdowns.

What brings on an overload?

For me, and lots of other autistic people, an overload can be brought on by doing things outside of our routines, and an increase of sensory input, for example noises, sights or smells and social interaction. All these things are hard for us, and I know that for myself it only takes a small amount of one, or all of them to push me to the point of overload. If we take the autism-friendly Mayoral Hustings, and break-down what I did that day you can see how it led to an overload.

First of all I had to go in to town which is not something I would normally do, so even the idea of the event itself started off the path to overload. There is also the fact that I don’t often go out on my own, and have hardly ever been to any kind of event with out my Mum or Dad with me. That in itself is a big change, and even though it was good to be able to go out by myself I am sure doing so for the first time still added to the stress. That day my morning routine had to change as I had to get myself ready to go out, meaning that even though I was used to the idea I had to put that idea in to practise – which, as I am sure you all know, is a whole different thing. In order to get to town I had to take a tram. Some days the trams are quiet, and some days they are noisy. The tram there was not too bad for most of the journey, but a few noisy football fans did get on around half way. This meant that before I had even got off the tram I had a lot of noise to contend with. I was early to the event as I try to be to most things, so I did not have to walk in to a busy room which was a plus. But as the room filled up it did become noisier, and it’s the build-up of noise that brings on an overload for me. A loud noise on its own might be unpleasant, but it won’t push me to be overloaded, but as the noises build-up: the talking, the moving of chairs, the scraping of shoes, coughing and such then it pushes me deeper and deeper in to an overloaded state. I was there for around two hours and there was something like seventy people in the room, so you can guess how much sensory input that was. There was also the matter of making small-talk with the people around my table. Now I did not have to do this; two of them knew me and would have been fine if I had not talked, but I wanted to. Talking and chatting might be hard for me, but I do enjoy it. I don’t want to go to events, and not have the chance to talk to people. But I am aware of the impact it has on me – as I said above social interactions play a large part in overload.

You can add to this the fact that I was meeting with and talking to political figures, and while I don’t feel intimidated by meeting people like that there was still the awareness that I was going to be on the spot talking to them, and asking them questions. It’s not a small event for anyone, but for someone with autism you can see how the day was full of things that can lead to overload, and there was no real way I was going to be able to do it without ending up with an overload.

Isn`t losing two days for one event too much of a price to pay?

This is what I found myself thinking on the Saturday. I enjoyed the event very much and loved having the chance to ask my questions, but after forty-eight hours of overload where I was unable to do anything I did begin to question if it was worth it. For one good event like that I will have two or three days where I have to do nothing, not even relax, just do nothing; drift around my house and wait for the hours to pass until I can get back to normal. It’s easy to ask myself should I go along to events like this? Should I give talks on autism as I sometimes do?, What’s the point of it all? But the question I always ask myself when I start to think like this is what would be the point of not doing it? Yes I would be avoiding the overload, but I can get overloads anyway from things I can’t get out of such as going to get my hair cut, or seeing family. I feel like if I were to give up the things that I enjoy, and that make good memories just to avoid overload I would regret it later in life. Yes it’s hard, and yes it’s not nice knowing that I won’t be able to blog about an event the day after I go to it, or have a nice relaxing day off after a day of hard work, but perhaps a better way to deal with this, than just stopping the things I enjoy, is to look at how I react to my overload.

Whenever I get an overload, and become frozen I always feel I should be doing something. “I cant just do nothing” I say. But as my Mum always says “Why not?” The idea of spending more time in bed on a day when I am overloaded never made sense to me. I get up at the same time, and sit around waiting for something to happen. But perhaps the key to all this could be something as small as training myself to do nothing; I don’t have to pick a film to watch, or a book to read if I can get myself in to a mindset where doing nothing is OK. In fact it’s needed.

I want to be a writer, and along with that a public speaker, and perhaps also a journalist and documentary film maker, and without trying to sound cocky I know I have what it takes to be all of these things. But I also know there will be a price to pay. I have to get used to the idea of paying that price, and try and work out how to lessen its impact rather than giving up on the idea of doing what I love. But on days when my overload is at its worst, thinking that way is hard to do. And I should also point out that I have cancelled a lot of stuff over the years due to overload, and I am sure I will cancel a lot more, but over all, and in answer to my own question, overload is bad, but yes it is a price worth paying for doing the things I enjoy – for me at least.

Let me know what you think in the comments, as how ever much I try, I can only really speak for myself.

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