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. 🙂