Sensory Overload: Why & How

Sensory overload can happen anywhere, depending on how many senses are being stimulated.

You’re in the grocery store. You can hear the fluorescent lights humming. The aisles are packed with talking people. Somewhere, a cart has an awfully squeaky wheel. How do you feel? Are you anxious? Overwhelmed? Do you feel like you’re shutting down? Sensory overload is what happens when one or more of our senses are overstimulated. Anyone can experience sensory overload, but some, such as those with anxiety or autistic people experience sensory overload more frequently.

A Word About Language

I wanted to write this article to highlight a challenge that many autistic people experience on World Autism Awareness Day. The language I am using is identity-first language, as this is widely preferred in the autistic community. If you would like more information about identity-first language, I recommend checking out the Autism Self-Advocacy Network. They are an excellent resource if you want to learn more about autism and allyship.

I also want to highlight that many autistic people do not support the organization Autism Speaks, which has raised awareness for autism through campaigns like #LightItUpBlue. There are a variety of reasons why the autistic community does not support Autism Speaks. I will briefly outline the most notable reasons below:

  1. Autism Speaks treats autism as a disease that should be feared and cured, as opposed to a developmental disability that affects autistic people throughout their lives. Fear-mongering campaigns contribute to stigma.
  2. Autism Speaks has no autistic members on their board. John Elder Robison used to be a prominent self-advocate on their board but has since resigned due to their destructive messaging.
  3. Very little of the money Autism Speaks raises goes to helping actual families and autistic individuals.

Also, by changing lights to the color blue to “raise awareness” Autism Speaks, they create an environment that causes sensory overload in many autistic people. This is neither accessible nor sensitive. However, it does tie into my topic on sensory overload and what we can do to avoid it or be more aware!

Who Can Get Sensory Overload?

The short answer? Everyone. However, those with mental illness, processing disorders, or autism are more likely to experience sensory overload.

Remember the last time you were at a party and the music was just TOO LOUD. Perhaps you left the room or went outside for a breath of fresh air. This is a natural response to overstimulation.

Unfortunately, you can’t always remove yourself from an overstimulating environment.

For example, someone going to a new country cannot control the onslaught of smells, colors, or people that they experience. I had a friend, who on our trip to Sri Lanka, could not visit any of the temples because they were too stimulating. Between the cloying incense, packed crowds, and brightly colored statues, paintings, and ceilings, she was simply too overwhelmed. She missed out on an amazing experience because too many of her senses were activated.

On the other hand, I am overwhelmed when I am stressed. The sounds of the fridge, talking, TVs, and lights can drive me through the roof!

Overall, there are two important things to remember. Anyone can be overstimulated, and what overwhelms one person may not overwhelm another.

Moreover, if regularly struggle with sensory overload, it is common to feel anxious about going to unfamiliar places. What if you can’t control the environment? What happens if things are too loud or too bright? When you are already anxious, it is much more likely you will be overstimulated.

Those who suffer from sensory overload are often anxious about visiting new or uncontrolled environments
Photo by Usman Yousaf

Can We Prevent Sensory Overload

This is the million dollar question, isn’t it?

How can we prevent the panic attacks, overwhelm, and anxiety that accompany sensory overload?

The first step, as always, is to learn more. If you are reading this article, you’re already heading in the right direction! But I am no expert, and the strategies I include below may not work for you. However, if anything in this article resonates with you, I recommend taking the step to learn more.

Furthermore, grounding and mindfulness help calm many people in stressful situations. Much like a muscle or new skill, mindfulness takes practice. Practicing mindfulness for even five minutes a day, such as noticing the wind in your hair or acknowledging your thoughts while meditating, can help you ground yourself when you are in an overwhelming situation.

If you feel comfortable, it may help to talk to your family or friends about what can trigger sensory overload for you. Maybe it is a certain kind of fabric or the sound of the kitchen fan. Awareness is the first step to change. Your family/friends cannot accommodate your senses if they don’t know you are struggling in the first place.

Likewise, if you can change your environment and remove triggers, do so! Is there an electronic that hums loudly? Can you unplug it? Are you allowed to change the lights in your room to a less bright bulb? Perhaps you can use lamps around the house instead of in-ceiling lighting.

Sensory Overload and Autism

Autism changes how people process the world around them. This can look like overstimulation or under-processing. Autistic people can easily become overwhelmed in stimulating environments, resulting in distress and anxiety. Often, their senses are already working in overdrive, noticing details that neurotypical people would never see.

By being aware of sensory triggers, thinking creatively about positive sensory experiences, and being prepared for a variety of stimuli, you can help the autistic individuals in your life manage their sensory overload. Avoiding using perfume, dimming lights, or offering objects for stimming can make various environments more accessible to autistic individuals.

Moreover, it is worth noting that “lighting it up blue” for the month of April, often contributes to sensory overload in many neuro-divergent people.

It is important to remember that accessibility is more than just a wheelchair ramp. For those with sensory processing disorders, taking small steps to create a less stimulating environment can have a huge impact!

Resources for Autism Awareness

As I mentioned above, many autistic people do not support Autism Speaks for a variety of reasons. Instead, I want to highlight various other resources about autism for those who want to be a better ally!

  • Autism Self-Advocacy Network (autisticadvocacy.org): a network created by autistic individuals for self-advocacy, ASAN’s slogan says it all. “Nothing about us without us” ensures that autistic voices are consulted and used to inform awareness, programs, and more.
  • National Autistic Society (www.autism.org.uk): I used this resource to find information about sensory overload and autism.

This article barely scratches the surface of sensory overload or autism. I encourage you to seek out more information through these links!

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4 thoughts on “Sensory Overload: Why & How

  1. This entire post resonated so much with me. Being HSP, I experience sensory overload often in my life. For years, I tried to work around it because I didn’t want to be perceived as ‘difficult’. It was only when I understood more about myself and being HSP, that I was able to open up about this – to myself and to others. I love the mindful tips and recommendations you have written into this article, especially this one: “if you can change your environment and remove triggers, do so! Is there an electronic that hums loudly? Can you unplug it? Are you allowed to change the lights in your room to a less bright bulb? Perhaps you can use lamps around the house instead of in-ceiling lighting.” This is exactly when I am trying to do (just moved and in the process of decorating) and your entry encourages me to stay on track and make my home more ‘hygge’ and not feel bad about that. Thank you!

    1. Hi Susanne, I am so glad that this article resonated with you! It can be hard to cope when others don’t understand what you are experiencing, but I’m happy you are doing what you need to do to make your environment work for you. Short of unplugging the fridge, there are definitely times where I go through my apartment turning off all electronics possible.

  2. I think it’s true that we all have sensory overload at times, not only those who have autism. You may not recognize it as “sensory overload” but that’s what it is. I know that holiday events are a time when I get “too much” when everyone wants something, or everyone is trying to be in the same space, all talking. I just go find a quiet corner for 10 minutes and that helps a lot.

    1. Exactly, Kari! Anyone can experience sensory overload, but it’s important to remember that some people’s thresholds are much lower than others. Autistic individuals often have a much lower sensory threshold, and this needs to be accounted for. It’s also important to note that many autistic people experience under-stimulation of their senses, but that is not a topic I focused on in this article.

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