Dealing with Sensory Overload

You are surrounded by what feels like every noise that you could imagine for the current setting you have placed yourself at, whether it be for friends or for work. While you try to listen and join in on conversations, the surrounding noise feels almost at the same volume while you struggle to hear what they have to say. It becomes even more difficult when you are also trying to think of a good response while the conversation moves on. Every sense in your body feels like it is being overflowed and overburdened with information and struggle to take it all in. It eventually becomes too much and you are not sure in what way to get rid of the excess anxiety and frustration felt.


If nothing is done, this will eventually lead to a complete meltdown and is sometimes infamously called the autistic tantrum. This brief description of what I sometimes feel when I’m in a public place should hopefully give you a window into what I and many others have to deal with every single day of our lives. Recently my fortitude for resisting a meltdown was put to the test as I wanted to try photographing a wedding for the first time in my life, despite my Asperger’s Syndrome. This consisted of being around people all day with not a lot of time to cool off from our senses being overloaded with too much information.


My employer and good friend knew of my Asperger’s and decided to have an assistant photographer so that I could attempt to do this with the least amount of pressure possible. I must certainly thank them both (Ron Delhaye and Steve Vansak), along with the lovely bride and groom Jenn and Angelo for letting me try this and being very understanding and accommodating. Couldn’t have found better people that were willing to work with my Aspergers. It also became quite the challenging first wedding, as it was a traditional Greek wedding with quite a large family. A little nerve-wrecking, but absolutely perfect for what I wanted to try and accomplish.


There were some things I did long beforehand and during the events that helped me push through successfully, despite it not being entirely perfect. That is just the way things are. You will make mistakes, but the most important thing is to learn from them for next time and pass on some of this knowledge to others. The latter part is part of the accomplishment I want to achieve so that others within the autistic spectrum can practice and also be able to work in typical work environments. Granted this won’t work for every person or situation, but should be viewed as a guide towards the road of success over such a problem.


First things first however:


1. Building Resistance


Something I did very early on before even thinking of taking on a seemingly herculean task is to try and build up resistance to sensory overload. This means going out to a public place such as a cafe to work and be around people while practicing steps to maintain and extend the amount of time before feeling the need to walk off before I get sensory overload. It can feel uncomfortable at first, but you should also realize that we need to get out of our comfort zones sometimes in order to progress. This is something both people with or without autism have in common and have to face in order to achieve their life goals. This is also an opportune time to practice methods you've brainstormed on to keep yourself calm as long as you believe you can handle before a meltdown.


While there can be a number of methods to handle overloaded senses, this next step is what I like to do and practice either out in public or when I am alone.


2. Practice Meditation and Breathing Exercises


Meditation has been shown to have very positive effects on reducing stress and anxiety in a number of scientific studies. I can only say from personal experience that if practiced and done right, it helped reduce my own anxiety and has helped me last longer despite the burden on my senses. Granted it only goes so far, but can definitely say it was a factor that helped prevent me from having a complete meltdown during the wedding reception. Remember however that it takes a lot of practice in order to see the benefits. It’s like exercising a muscle. You may not be able to lift a ton at first, but time and persistence will eventually lead you toward being able to make that accomplishment.


Also remember that you do not need to force yourself if it feels too much and not push yourself too much as well. There is no shame in walking towards a more quiet area in order to calm down, as I found I needed to during the reception. I was feeling rather frustrated that I wasn’t able to be able to go out and have that regular chat while photographing others like Ron and Steve were able to do. Then I realize that instead of doing what was the equivalent of complaining silently while sitting, I instead thought up on how to get around the realized problem. This lead to me going out and attempt to photograph the crowd in short bursts and then retreat back to a more quiet area when it starts to feel overwhelming again. This is exactly what I did and the rest of the evening was smooth sailing more or less.


Everyone must also realize that for those with Asperger's they might want to join in on the festivities but have trouble trying to communicate that and end up being left out, which just adds to the building frustration and anxiety. For me, I look at everyone dancing and having fun but didn't know how or what to do. I'm not really much into freelance dancing and there were times when the Greek music started to play and the more traditional dancing began. So then what got me out of my shell to join? I actually got dragged in by someone that noticed me watching and not joining in on the celebration and decided to just have fun. Wasn't sure what I needed to do, but tried to imitate what I saw and ended up having a blast. When Ron joined in on one of the remaining Greek dances I was able to jump right on in without any assistance required. Certainly one of many bright moments that evening.


This among other lessons is something I wish to improve for further weddings or other events as I move forward to discover what I am capable of doing and learn other categories of photography. While others would be discouraged, I feel a sort of excitement in it all which I haven’t felt for quite a while. With calculated risks come great rewards for those who persist. I intend to keep pushing forward and learn how capable I truly am. One more thing for calming the anxiety…


3. Do an Activity


We’ve all heard about the infamous autistic tantrums with throwing everything around and there is little one can do when this happens. What could possibly be done is how one can channel that excess anxiety through another activity. What that activity is depends on the individual. When I was little I only recall once or twice having a meltdown. What I had done instead when I felt overloaded was to lay my head down and eventually my brain overloads, shuts down and restarts similar to an overheated processor in a computer. I keep my head down until feeling relaxed and then continue on with the day. Other times I end up sketching a lot as well as my focus slowly tunes out the excess noise and focuses on the activity.


Whether this works for everyone else or not will vary. If you decide to try learning such a technique, try to learn and practice before such meltdowns. During a meltdown they will not be able to think or process anything else so doing it at such a time will be fruitless. As the sensory overload reaches its climax, they could briefly remember such techniques taught and then apply them before the meltdown occurs that could help.


Remember that all of this is just from my personal experience of dealing with my own sensory overloads and meltdowns. I do however hope that this will assist parents, friends, and those who are also on the autistic spectrum on being able to improve such situations. Have you discover other methods besides what is described above in dealing with sensory overload? Please leave a comment below about it so that others can learn and help each other out. I would love to hear and try other methods myself in order to improve and accomplish my lifelong goals. Until then, will see you next time!