This post is also available in Dutch.
Sensory overload is a cause of distress that is reported in several disorders, such as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), and can also happen in non-autistic individuals. Sensory overload results from the overstimulation of one or several of our senses. When we experience it, a simple thing like going to the supermarket or ordering a coffee becomes a real nightmare.
Too much information
Let’s experience it together: as you enter this cosy-looking coffee bar, you hear the noise of the coffee machine loudly, smell the enticing aroma sharply and get overwhelmed by every possible option on the menu. To make it even harder, your favourite song – Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen – plays on the radio, a waiter kindly asks you to move out of his way and the nearby toilet distributes a penetrating soapy smell.
Result: it’s all too much and you need to get out of there. A common experience for many autistic people.
Smells like dogs, cats, deodorant, and aftershave lotion are so strong to me I can’t stand it, and perfume drives me nuts.Gillingham, G. (1995)
Altered sensitivity in Autism
Even though atypical sensory processing is not specific to ASD, it is one of the common symptoms. This altered sensitivity can manifest itself in a number of ways: from hypersensitivity (an increased sensitivity) to hyposensitivity (a reduced sensitivity) and can be either unisensory (including one sense only) or multisensory (several).
In general, it appears that discerning competing sights, sounds, or smells causes trouble, like the song competes with the voice of the waiter, or the coffee with the soap smell, for example. Moreover, the anxiety caused by sensory overload can lead to other symptoms of ASD such as impulsive reactions and repetitive behaviors.
This is why it is essential that our daily environment becomes more adapted to everyone’s needs. Even people who are not suffering from sensory overload cannot pay attention to every piece of sensory information anyway. Either you perceive every single detail, which is stressful for your brain, or you don’t and just filter out what is meaningful to you. In either case, part of the information is not helpful. What about simpler packaging with less information then? No music if the place is already noisy? No diffuser to spread attractive scents all over the place?
If I get sensory overload, then I just shut down; you get what’s known as fragmentation… it’s weird, like being tuned into 40 TV channels.Gillingham, G. (1995)
Shopping without the noise
People suffering from this sensory overload have to avoid crowded places, with too much light, too much noise, or too many smells. Therefore, several supermarkets, events, and tourist spots all over the world started developing a periodical ‘quiet hour”, especially intended for autistic people. During this time, stores, for example, will “dim lights, turn music off, avoid using the tannoy, and turn check-out beeps down.” In fact, these low-sensory experiences happen to be a relief for many people, autistic or not. According to the staff themselves, you only become aware of how noisy, bright, and full of information our environment is when you’ve experienced it in silent mode. “When I do this hour, it’s actually very calming and soothing, and it’s almost like an hour of meditation.”
Quotes from Gillingham, G. (1995). Autism: Handle with Care! Understanding and Managing Behavior of Children and Adults with Autism. Future Education Inc., Arlington.