Hello, and welcome back to The Autistic Writer. It’s good to have you here. In this week’s blog, I want to do something a little different. I’m going to take you into the detail of what sensory overload feels like to me. I’m going to give a real-life example of an incident of sensory overload I experienced this week; what caused it, and how I felt. But first, a bit of background on me and audio processing…
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For a long time, I just thought I was partially deaf. I must have been in my forties before I consciously realised I was mishearing loads of dialogue on TV and in movies. But all through my life in social situations, I often couldn’t keep track of conversations simply because I couldn’t hear a lot of what was being said. I could only enjoy listening to music if I played it really loud (much to the despair of my mother, when I was a teenager). In general conversation, I mastered the art of extrapolation in order to understand what people were saying. When that failed, if the situation was leading to potential embarrassment, I deployed non-committal grunts and shrugs. Mostly, I got away with it. But it was weird because in some situations, I could hear what people were saying just fine; usually when competing sounds were absent. Like many aspects of myself in the days before I knew I was autistic, I was in denial about the problem, and would put any worries about it I had in a corner of my mind where I didn’t have to think about it. For example, it’s only in retrospect that I can associate the regular meltdowns I had in my teens, twenties and early thirties with sensory overstimulation. Up until then, I just believed what people told me about my aggressive streak. Meltdowns at that time in my life could be aggressive and violent. At this point, I should offer some extremely important clarification. It’s so important, I’m going to put it in bold:
There is a myth that autistic people are violent and dangerous; a myth that being autistic makes the person violent. This is bullshit. While my meltdowns in my younger years were violent, there was a specific reason for violence being the outcome, and it has nothing to do with being autistic. An autistic meltdown is a result of autistic distress. Meltdowns take many forms. I came from a background in which violence was common, and for many people was the go-to response in any challenging situation. It was the culture in which I was raised, and became learned behaviour. If my background had been different, then my meltdowns would have been different, like maybe collapsing in tears (a much more likely outcome these days). Or maybe I would have had shutdowns. The point I’m making is that it would be foolish to use me as an example of autistic people being violent, and anyone who tries to will get a slap. (That last bit was humour.)
At some point twenty-odd years ago, when my tinnitus first developed, I sought help with my hearing. Some guy at the hearing clinic told me my hearing was very slightly defective, but not enough to worry about. He based this on tests carried out in a quiet room, with sounds played through headphones. I came away wondering why I bothered. Then about four years ago (I was still unaware of my autistic status), I tried again, and saw a different person at the hearing clinic. Again, tests were carried out in a quiet room, with sounds played through headphones. This time, I was told my hearing at certain frequencies was impaired enough to need hearing aids. I tried them out in the clinic, and was impressed. I took them home and listened to the TV. There was a definite improvement… until people in the house started talking at the same time I was listening to the TV; now I had the same problem as before, but louder. I thought I just needed to get used to using the aids, but it was no good. They just made all the noise around me louder, and I was simply left with a louder version of the same old problem. But I was now beginning to understand it: When different competing sounds were around me, the sounds would go kind of blurry, and merge into a sonic mess. It was particularly bad with speech. I started to realise my hearing difficulties were not about deafness in terms of loss of hearing. Something else was going on.
At this point, I started to think about other aspects of how I experienced sounds, particularly speech. I would often find myself in a situation where I suddenly realised someone was trying to attract my attention, and I hadn’t noticed. Gradually, I would pick up someone saying, “Darren. Darren. Darren? Darren!” It was like the sound would gradually emerge in clarity from what has been a vague blend of noises. People would laugh, and say I’d been “miles away”, or whatever. The person in question would say they’d been talking to me for a while, and I hadn’t paid attention. It wasn’t about being in my own world, though; it was as if sound had been tuned out just enough for it to become white noise.
In addition to all this, I found I had started to avoid situations in which there was excessive competing noises. It wasn’t necessarily about loudness, but clashing sounds. As I started to be more sensible about my booze consumption, I couldn’t fall back on the numbing effects of alcohol to make the noise easier to deal with, and so clubs became no-go areas, as did most pubs.
Eventually, after my autism diagnosis, I started to do some research, and finally understood that it is my neural profile that leads to my difficulties with sounds. My autism diagnosis came in middle age, after a prolonged descent into autistic burnout. As I’ve mentioned many times on this blog, my burnout was catastrophic, and left me with significantly reduced ability to function in many areas. One of these areas was in sound processing, and noise-induced anxiety, which has become a really big deal for me. The resistance to discomfort that I used to deploy when younger has evaporated, and I no longer rely so much on alcohol to self-medicate against the discomfort, either. Worsening tinnitus adds a bit of poison to the mix.
I’ve often felt that my sensitivity to noise changes relative to how stressed I feel. That seems to make sense. But when I had an episode of sensory overload recently (the one I’m about to describe), I started to feel very annoyed with myself, and I tweeted about, it to check with the autistic community online. I was blown away by the number of people liking the tweet, and commenting that it was the same for them. It was that response that prompted me to write this blog post.
So, with that background explained, I now want to describe the specific instance of sensory overload. Come with me…
On the day in question, I hadn’t slept well, and was a little late leaving the house for work – a situation that will always leave me stressed. I ended up being about two minutes late walking into the office, and I don’t believe anyone gave a hoot about that, but it bothered me. Where lateness is concerned, a miss is as good as a mile for me. I hate being late. My stress level increased accordingly. I then proceeded to have a busy morning in which I had to deal with some, shall we say, difficult people. It wasn’t anything disastrous, just enough to add another straw to the donkey’s load. When lunchtime arrived, I decided I would head straight to the park, and eat my cheese sandwich on a bench. A particularly cheeky pigeon would not leave me alone. I detest pigeons. While eating, I checked my phone. There was a text message! I rarely get standard text messages – I prefer other messaging apps. There are literally two people who text me, and one of those has now switched to WhatsApp. If I get a text message, it’s usually something official – a medical appointment, or whatever. This text had arrived at 11:21 am, and was from the DWP (Department of
Wankers and Pillocks Work and Pensions):
Remind me? Remind me? I knew nothing about this appointment. Not only that, the text had come a mere one hour and thirty-nine minutes before the appointment time, and I had only seen it at 12:40! What preparation time is that? The DWP agent knows what I do for a living, and that I can’t just check my messages willy-nilly while I work. This had all been explained before. Furthermore, they know I struggle with phone calls. They also know that the assessment process they are trying to force me into is wholly inappropriate. My stress levels shot into the stratosphere when I read this text message. Having almost choked on my sandwich, I set off walking, determined that I would not answer the phone if it rang. I put my audiobook on (a pretty good exploration of historical evidence for King Arthur), but I was so stressed I couldn’t take it in, so I switched it back off. Moments later, the phone rang. And for some reason, I answered it. The conversation with the DWP agent was appalling. I can’t go into all of it, but just as an example of what I was dealing with:
It got much worse, as the agent went on to insinuate that I was liable for a significant amount of money to cover some third-party support I have already received. I have since had this worry dismissed, but at the time I was shellshocked. I went back to the office feeling extremely anxious but knowing I had to try to put it out of my mind as I had some important work to do in the afternoon. Of course, I couldn’t really put it out of my mind, however hard I tried to focus.
Monday afternoons in my job can be tricky. There’s specific stuff that happens on Monday afternoons, and my attention gets pulled in many directions. It kicked off immediately after lunch, as soon as I got to my desk. Various people kept coming to my desk to talk to me; it’s part of the job. My phone kept ringing, and these were calls I had to take. Email requests kept dropping into my inbox. I worked in a shared space. To my right, people were working and speaking. Behind my right shoulder, two people were having a conversation, quite close to me. Over my left shoulder, three other people were having a conversation. In the nearby corridor, a group of people were having a really loud conversation. The phone on the next desk along kept ringing. The phone behind me kept ringing. Even for a Monday, it was busy, and it was all happening at once. The sounds blurred, and I was finding it almost impossible to make out what people were saying to me. Everyone seemed to be understanding and hearing each other just fine; they were smiling, communicating, laughing, just getting on with it. But for me, it was all a sonic blur. Something strange happened in the middle of this. One of the conversations taking place near me suddenly exploded into total clarity. Although the two people were talking quietly, some distance away, their words briefly emerged from the sonic blur, and I could hear everything they said, booming in my right ear. Then it faded back into the blur again. I started to sweat. My heart was hammering. My hands were shaking. I felt itchy all over. And worst of all, I couldn’t think straight. For several minutes, I literally did nothing, until my phone rang again. Focusing my thoughts took immense effort. I leaned forward, pinching the bridge of my nose. No one noticed. All the horror I was feeling was internal; nothing showing outwardly. The sensation was of fear, and of hopelessness. I was literally biting back tears. A younger me would have either walked out or started shouting at people to shut up. Either way, I would have been out of a job. Instead, I just sat there, struggling, wanting to be anywhere else, feeling like the noise was a physical container shrinking around me. I imagine my body language was completely neutral, though.
Gradually, this busy spell tailed off. People drifted away. The phones stopped ringing all at the same time. Within half an hour, my stress levels had dropped a little bit (but they didn’t go back to my normal autistic-stressed baseline for a couple of days). I was able to work for the rest of the afternoon, and because I’ve become so good at powering through this shit, I’m guessing no one even noticed how I was suffering. I just carry on regardless, because to show you’re struggling is a sign of weakness… according to the same unspoken rules I was raised with that also offered violence as a reaction to any difficulties. In the evening after the overload, I felt exhausted, but could not sleep. I was clumsy, knocking things over as my coordination was all over the place. I simultaneously felt sad and angry with myself. The day after the overload, I felt like I had a hangover. My head was thumping, and I felt sick and trembly. The period of overload probably lasted about fifteen minutes or so, but affected me for a couple of days.
Interlude: A brief message
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So, that’s what this one episode of sensory overload was like for me. It’s different for different autistic people, although I guess many will have had experiences similar to mine. Thinking back over it, I’m really surprised by how I maintained an outward appearance of being more or less calm. I don’t understand how the neurotypical people could continue to communicate with each other in that situation; speaking and hearing, laughing, joking… My way of experiencing it is all I know, and to me it was nightmarish. The audio environment in my job does get like that every now and again, although not always as bad as the day I’ve described. Now, I just wait for the next time.
That’s all for this week. Until next time, take care, be good, stay proud.
You can find The Autistic Writer on all your favourite social media channels
Why Do I Write This Blog?
When I first found out I was autistic, I was a middle-aged adult and I knew nothing about autism. I quickly learned that there was a serious shortage of information and resources for adults in my situation. With this blog, I aim to inform about autism and autism-related issues as I learn, hopefully helping people who are on a similar journey of discovery. Like anyone who writes a blog, I want to reach as many readers as possible; if you like what I’m doing, please share it with your friends and followers. I will never hide this blog behind a paywall, but running the website does incur costs. If you would like to support, feel free to make a small contribution at BuyMeACoffee.Com.
You might also be interested in David Scothern’s blog, Mortgage Advisor on FIRE, which covers a range of topics including mental health issues and financial independence.