Posted by: E (The Third Glance) | April 21, 2012

Processing a Sensory Overload

Last week I blogged about how I had a sensory overload in my lab class, and how I wished I could be able to say “Excuse me, my Autism is showing, please forgive me while I cover my ears, until the sound is fixed”, while instead pushing through the awfulness, and trying to explain why this awful sound no one else could hear, was so painful to me.

Well this week’s lab was a little different… the professor was trying to play us a VHS (yes, the professor still uses REALLY OLD VHS’s from the 80s to teach us stuff – they’re somewhat informative and very entertaining), and the tape was just not having it. It was old, tired, and sick of being played. So it gave up the ghost. Loudly, and with AWFUL, terrible, horrible screeching noises. But this time, everyone heard it. I was the first with my hands over my ears, but I certainly wasn’t the only one… once I recovered from the initial shock and was able to open my eyes and look around (see below), I noticed that about 2/3s of the students were also covering their ears. This time, it wasn’t just me!

At this point, it’s worth it to note that when I get sensory overloaded, my first instinct is to shut down all channels of input. I hold my breath (stop smells), squeeze my eyes shut, clamp my hands over my ears, and curl up into a ball. Then I take stock of the situation and slowly release the senses that aren’t being assaulted. This defense mechanism is in place, I think, because when the overload happens, I don’t have brain power to figure out immediately what is causing the overload. So I shut down everything to stop the misery, and then release the senses that aren’t overloaded, one by one, until I can deal with the overwhelming-ness of the sense(s) in trouble. In general, first released is almost always breath, because I need to breathe. Then I relax my muscles, and open my eyes, and finally, when it’s safe again, I release my ears. Often, however, my reaction keeps my muscles tight, and keeps me in a ball until the whole thing is over. But I digress…

It took the professor almost a full 2 LOOOOOONNNNNNNNNGGGGGGG minutes to stop the sound, and during those few minutes, I noticed that the other people with hands over their ears were just covering their ears. They were still sitting normally, and didn’t have their eyes shut or anything else. It was kind of neat to observe how they reacted similarly, yet differently from me in response to an auditory overload. They were able to process “There is a loud sound. I need to cover my ears now” and then do just that.

For me, the processing goes somewhat like this: “AHHHHHH OVERLOAD…. *shut all sensory input now*… ok, breathe. It’s not smelly, you can relax a little. Ok, try to move. Can you move? Does it hurt to move anything? No? Open your eyes. Can you see? Is it too bright? Ok, you can hear the sound through your hands, it must be auditory. Keep your ears covered, and employ all mechanisms necessary to keep calm until the situation rectifies itself.” It’s possible that everyone else had exactly the same reaction, it just took me significantly longer to re-open my senses, and thus didn’t observe it, but somehow I don’t think so. For one thing, for most people to have curled up, they would have had to move their chairs considerably so as to avoid bashing their knees on the tables. This isn’t always exactly how I react to every sensory overload. Sometimes the stims are different (if I’m standing, I can’t curl up into a ball, but I do scrunch and rock). Sometimes I whimper. I don’t generally or produce other noises, because I don’t have enough control over my breathing during an overload, and other noise just makes it worse for me.

I’ve never thought about how I process sensory overload in these terms before, but as I pay more attention to myself and my body and reactions to the rest of the world, and as I then write about it, I notice a lot more, and a lot more makes sense to me. This is the gift of awareness. Excuse me, my Autism is showing.


Apparently I’ve had sensory issues on the mind recently. Stay tuned for parts 2 and 3 of simple sensory solutions (and maybe more, depending on what other things come to mind). And if you haven’t already, and you enjoy the blog, I was nominated by a wonderful reader as a Babble Top Autism Blog, and am hovering in spot 23. Now I love prime numbers, so 23 is a great spot, but if you feel so inclined, please go over there and vote for me (and all of the other fantastic Autism blogs you read, too – There are a lot of fantastic bloggers nominated this year, and I hope you go check them out!) And a HUGE thank you to everyone who has voted for me. It’s such an honor to even be nominated, and it is so amazing and surreal to see people actually voting for me because they have read and enjoyed my writing. So thanks. 🙂


  1. If I’m completely overwhelmed then I stop breathing, I squint my eyes, I tense all of my muscles and grind my teeth. This sort of overload also tends to stop me from being able to communicate too. I tend to find sounds more overwhelming than anything else, but I don’t like lights either. Layers of sound just take far too much processing, loud noises just hurt, they feel like they’re pushing into my ears.

    • Yes yes yes, I am exactly the same way. My WHOLE BODY reacts to sensory overload. I can’t just cover my ears… I don’t like lights much, but I can deal with them SOOOO much better than sound. Textures is also a pretty hard one for me. I used to hate going in the ocean because of seaweed, and you would see me get brushed with a piece of seaweed on my legs and I would curl up and cover my ears… now I understand WHY.

  2. I can relate to everything you say, except I am sorry you feel you have to excuse yourself or ask forgiveness. As I see it, you are protecting yourself, that’s all, and not harming anyone. Sure, an explanation might be useful to increase other people’s understanding, but no one should need you to apologise.

    That being said, I recognise I am taking the situation literally, when your apology might have been tongue-in-cheek!!

    • I feel like if I disrupt anything, I should apologize, whether it is because of something Autism-related or not. If I disrupt a conversation by sneezing, I will also say “excuse me”.

  3. I do not feel the pain; I feel discomforts; I feel unbalances; incongruities; distractions. Some of which will shut me down. I turn rock. I turn water. I turn wind. My actions betray meaning. Laughing, or smiling when discomforted tends to confuse people. I turn rock.

    My friend, however, does feel the same as you. And it causes him great concern as we are planning a trip to America, possibly Vermont or Massachussetts, with day trips into New York. The last distant flight he went on left him paralysed for 2 days as some sort of electrical equipment on flight gave him extreme pains for the 7 hour flight. That he said was ten years ago. I went on short flight with him to Ireland and he was fine. I’m presuming (rather hoping) that the equipment on the planes is different now and would no longer cause such pains. Have you heard of similar things with air travel and Aspergers?

    • Oof, that is awful. I can’t wear them, but a lot of people benefit from noise-canceling headphones on airplanes and in other situations…

  4. The other day both kids were crying and I just couldn’t handle it. (a six year old and a five month old) J came into the bedroom to find me with the blanket over my head and my hands over my ears over the blanket. He said, what’s wrong Rebekah? I said I don’t know but I’ve retreated into my cocoon of safety! (I knowing that sounds a little extreme, but its how I felt, felt embarassed and worried about how he would react.) He got the five month old to stop crying. Ok, I can come out now and maybe see what the other one’s problem is.
    And VHS can be awful especially on an old tv that has “snow” or a “silent blue screen” (that isn’t silent at ALL because I CAN hear that crook’s tube…and no one else can.)
    Thanks for communicating how sensory overload “works” for you.
    By the way, I lived as a “neurotypical” for 24 years AND then they told me I have ADHD. Whew. That explains it- it being struggles in school that nobody knew about…since I got straight A’s generally. And then there was college…still ongoing. So for 4 years now I’ve been dealing with the idea “I’m not normal.” Well heck How was I supposed to know other people don’t have such vivid dreams or dream about a rocking boat and wake up to find out theyre falling out of bed? Seems “normal” to me.
    Thanks for writing.

    • Thanks for the wonderful comment. 🙂 Yes, I definitely can relate to that… I got good grades too (not straight A’s till college, though), so everyone was always confused as to why i was struggling. Academics isn’t everything in life. (funny to say that, as I am an academic. :P)

  5. I feel for you deeply. I once failed a physics test because the buzzing of lights. I usually sat at the front (far from lights) but because I hated all the commotion of people handing in tests ( I compulsively check answers) I sat in the back. The bulb hummed so loudly, I thought I was losing my mind!

  6. Wow. I can relate to this sensory-overload of which you speak. Thank you for sharing your experience. Amazing detail.

  7. Thank you for sharing your experiences – very valuable for me to know. My son has SPD & cannot do ANYTHING during sensory overload (he just covers his ears & cries or makes loud noises). Now I understand why.

  8. I wanted to let you know that we added you to our blog roll. As parents of kids with autism, your blog helps us to know what is going on in the minds of our children, and that kind of information is invaluable. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences!!

  9. I will give you some pointers if you send me a Tweet. As a licensed occupational therapist, I have some pointers for you that you can take anywhere.

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