Sensory Overload from an Adult Professional perspective.

Photo from Reachout ASC conference

Do we think beyond our autistic pupils and wonder if teaching staff or other professionals may be grown up autistic people?  Sensory overload, social confusion and other differences don’t go away, but many autistic adults spend a lot of time and energy trying to ‘mask’ their difficulties in busy, demanding environments.  This anonymous account from an autistic professional explains why we should make more accommodations so that we can all work better together.  Hope we can all think to ask “What can help?”

Here is their account:

Last week I attended a conference for professionals in education.  It was an amazing event; inspiring, exciting and thought provoking.  There was only one problem. I spent most the day in sensory overload.

If you looked at me sitting on the outskirts of the conference, not making eye contact, not joining conversation what assumptions would you make?  That I don’t want to be there?  That I’m aloof? Unfriendly?   What you don’t see, what you don’t understand is that I am in sensory over load, fighting to keep myself together and maintain some sort of integrity.

In reality, I am an intelligent, knowledgeable, successful professional and this conference is where I want to be.  I look forward to talking to colleagues and debating the important aspects of our work, striving to change the landscape of society but sensory overload is incapacitating.  As I shake, struggling to breathe, the lights, the noise, the people, the never-ending rooms with no way of escaping to fresh air, to space, all becomes too much and I fight back impending meltdown.

It isn’t one thing that causes sensory overload.  I sometimes travel for work.  Trains are a nightmare for me.  The flashing lights, the view rocketing past the window, the deafening noise and small space cause me to feel nausea and panic within minutes.  Then there is the tube. There seems no realistic alternative to travelling round London yet the tube could not be more averse to the needs of autistic people.  My skin feels like it is on fire and I have the overwhelming needs to tear it off.  There is no room to breathe, the noise and lights are horrendous.  The experience is so overwhelming I can’t catch my breath, I go dizzy and panic sets in.  The need to escape is crushing.

When I arrive at the conference there is nowhere to escape to, nowhere to sit and self-regulate to hold the melt down at bay.  Because I have been unable to regulate the overload does not subside.  As I walk into a room full of professionals I respect and admire, I know I must make a decision, a simple decision, where to sit?   There are too many tables, too many people, so much noise I can’t distinguish people’s voices.  It is like there is a wrench jammed into the cogs of my brain and no matter how hard I try I cannot get it moving again.I am unable to join conversations, unable to step further into the room and the panic is rising and all I want you to know is I am not always like this;  I am a professional, I am knowledgeable, I am good at my job but the cogs won’t move.  People come up to me and talk to me and I can’t find the words to respond.  I smile and stumble over my words and they have no idea I am screaming inside about to break down.

Sensory overload is debilitating.  Terrifying.  A tornado that swoops in, wreaks havoc on your brain and body and leaves exhaustion, migraines, nausea and uncontrollable shaking in its wake. It can take me days to recover from an experience like this.

So why am I telling you this? Why do I want you to know what it feels like to be in sensory overload? When in sensory overload your communication skills are compromised more than usual and it can be impossible to tell someone what is happening.  After 6 hours of being at the conference I was brave enough to tell one person.  The response I had was ‘what would help?’  So simple, yet no one has ever asked that question before. Well, there are a few things you can do.

Provide somewhere quiet and let people know it’s there.  Sometimes a few minutes in a low stimulus environment is all it takes to self-regulate.

Allow people to stim.  Standing up and rocking, pacing, fidgeting or other such movements can really help to regulate sensory input.

If you see someone on the outskirts don’t assume they don’t want to join in.  Initiate conversation and give then a topic to talk about. It helps to ease the anxiety to have a focus.

Invite them to sit with you.  Sometimes a friendly face can mean the world.

Remember, every autistic person’s experience is different and just because you are not explicitly aware of any autistic people in your target audience, doesn’t- mean we aren’t here.

2 replies
  1. Arvinder Singh Paul
    Arvinder Singh Paul says:

    Heartfelt post and very much needed. Professionals in conferences need to make autistic professional more welcome and put in place, as the author says, simple things that are very easily possible in place. Thank you for your post Lynn.

  2. Su Seymour
    Su Seymour says:

    Please don’t have white tables or white tablecloths. Myself and many other adults with autism can’t stand glare of white things x

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