Have you ever watched a film – or children’s TV show – told from the perspective of a small, anthropomorphic* animal in a world full of humans? Put them in a scenario where they are trying to navigate a busy place packed with people. They cannot focus on their destination when there are so many legs to dodge. They have to make split second judgements about where to move when, they feel like they could get squashed at any moment, and you can bet there are beeping cars, barking dogs, lots of shouting, and any number of obstacles.
It’s a weird analogy, but that’s what springs to mind when I try to explain what a sensory overload feels like. I might not be small, furry, and animated, but this is how I feel walking through a massive party, an airport, a big train station, or even a busy town or city. I can’t mentally filter everything I can hear and see. I find it hard to read people and make judgements about how and when to move, so I have to really concentrate when moving through a crowd. Crossing roads without traffic lights is even harder, and don’t get me started on cyclists. Also, if someone is talking to me I can often hear them well enough, but I’m not in the best place to give an intelligent reply because I can’t filter out what I need to.
People with autism are known for over – or under – reacting to stimuli. My theory is that our senses aren’t different, exactly; rather, our brains respond differently to sensory data. Can you see why, when there’s all sorts happening in the background, we show attention-deficit tendencies? To use another TV analogy, I sometimes wonder if someone without autism experiences that kind of environment like a scene in a public place where background events are visually and aurally dimmed down, and what they are focusing on is front-and-centre. But I can’t speak from experience.
And it’s not just hearing. Some, like me, are easily startled by touch; Mum says she has never worried about me getting touched inappropriately because I’d break the wrist of anyone who might try. Similarly, certain textures may be uncomfortable. Some people don’t like clothes made from specific materials, or that are too tight. As a child, I always had to cut the labels off, because I was too aware of them. Some people, on the other hand, may be less aware of physical sensations. They may not notice even severe pain, or they might simply neglect their own needs.
Some people struggle with particular food textures or flavours, and may be unable to stomach anything too stodgy, bitty, spicy, inconsistent, etc. Having been raised eating Chinese/Taiwanese cuisine, I love spicy, vegetable based food. Yet I’ve never liked mayonnaise, fruit crumble, custard, gravy, or various stereotypically British things. Also, despite always liking jacket potatoes, it took me years to trust mash. Asperger logic at its best.
I think this is another issue where, for the most part, I explain so that people are aware, not because I expect help. Anyway, awareness is helpful if it means the other person knows my social skills might be down until I can hear myself think, and in situations like that, the best help is probably the most subtle.
*meaning human-like in some way (physically and/or mentally). Think Disney.