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The autistic experience of overwhelm

Last updated on February 14, 2021 by Martin Silvertant

In our previous post, Sensory Sunday #4, we asked what physical or mental symptoms you get as a result of being overstimulated, and I offered a description of my experience of sensory overload. In this post, I will describe my experiences of several types of overwhelm relating to autism.


Sensory overload

Type: sensory overwhelm

When I visit stores, the amount of visual information I process often gets to be too much. Yesterday Natalie and I stepped into a warehouse, and after half a minute I said, “I am already not feeling well. I will wait outside.”  What happens is that I see so much detail that I am quite literally getting sick. I experience a headache, and when it really gets too much, I become nauseous and start sweating.

There isn’t so much going on mentally, except for a great desire to go outside, or to seclude myself in a dark room. Outside, things are more distant, there is more openness, and a lot less detail. And in a dark room, there isn’t as much light coming into my eyes that needs to be processed, and we see less detail in the dark. As such, there is less to process, and I can breathe again.


Meltdown

Type: emotional overwhelm

Sensory overload doesn’t lead to meltdowns for me. It’s usually caused by anxiety and mental distress, but I found that when my sugar levels drop because I haven’t had protein in a while, that is a major contributor to my agitation and potential meltdowns. Either way, when my childhood traumas come up, I can lose control over my emotions. I become less rational, and excessively needing validation and compassion. Although sometimes even that isn’t enough, as I first need to vent my anger. I have a lot of suppressed rage that often comes out during a meltdown. Although I can be verbally aggressive in this state, it all comes from fear. I guess it’s a fairly child-like state.

In terms of physical symptoms, during a meltdown I experience an extreme amount of anxiety. I may experience stomach pain, and pressure on my chest. I don’t notice necessarily notice my physical symptoms, however, both due to alexithymia as well as focusing so much on the emotional overwhelm that there isn’t any mindfulness about bodily sensations.

In terms of mental symptoms, I guess I feel like a grave injustice is being done onto me. It makes me feel entitled to validation and compassion, which are things Natalie can’t necessarily offer me in such a state, as generally when I am having a meltdown, it means she is having one as well.

I get out of a meltdown by doing things that calm me. Generally, I will smoke cannabis, which helps me a lot. But I have also gone for extended walks. At first, I will loop on feelings of injustice and my anger. At a certain point, I think my anxiety diminishes enough so that I connect more with my upsetness than with the injustice I feel is done to me and the subsequent anger I feel towards that person. At that point, I start crying rather than expressing anger. I start to feel compassion for the other, and a lot of shame about my own behavior. It feels terrible not being in control of my emotions. And while I feel rational and justified during a meltdown, after the meltdown I realize how irrational I have been, how much I overidentified with my emotions, and how difficult of a situation I presented Natalie with (or whoever was in my path in the past).


Shutdown

Type: burnout

After a meltdown, a shutdown often follows. In this state, I am also emotionally overwhelmed, but in a passive way. What I mean by that is that I am no longer actively overwhelmed and out of control. Instead, it feels like I burned through my emotions. At this point, I will have trouble processing certain things, but no longer because the sensory or emotional information is too much for me, but because the emotional apparatus simply no longer works. So there is a lack of processing, rather than a desperate attempt at processing a lot.

What this feels like is a numbness both of the mind and the body. I feel a strange mix of apathy and contentedness. I guess because a lack of emotionality feels like quite a relief after a meltdown. I don’t wish to be apathetic generally, but after emotional overwhelm, not experiencing much in terms of emotions feels very welcome. Ahh, a break!

There is still a bodily sensation somewhat comparable to anxiety, but it doesn’t give me the feeling of pressure and discomfort the way anxiety does. The best way to describe it I feel is really that I burned through my emotions, but that may not mean anything to you. Besides, even though I think this is an apt description, I realize now that this is counterintuitively more a description of my bodily sensations than my mental ones. Mentally, I just feel exhausted. Physically, I guess in a way I feel things no longer impact me. Maybe numbness is the best way to describe it after all.

Or maybe it’s something I often say during or after a shutdown:

I feel like I have been hit by a truck.


Reported feelings of overwhelm

Autistic people also report the following feelings when it comes to overwhelm:

  1. Blood pressure changes
  2. Brain fog/clouding of consciousness
  3. Chest pain
  4. Confusion
  5. Dizziness
  6. Dissociation
  7. Disorientation
  8. Fragmented perception
  9. Headache
  10. Irrationality
  11. Irritability
  12. Nausea
  13. Neck pain (this seems to be somatization)
  14. Noise in head/ears
  15. Poor executive functioning
  16. Stomachache
  17. Trembling

And I’m sure the range of experiences doesn’t end here.


What is your experience of sensory overload, a meltdown, or a shutdown?

Blood pressure, Brain fog, Burnout, Clouding of consciousness, Disorientation, Dissociation, Emotional dysregulation, Executive functions, Headache, Irrationality, Irritability, Meltdown, Mindfulness, Nausea, Overwhelm, Psychosomatic effects, Sensory differences, Sensory overload, Shutdown, Somatic experience, Somatization, Stomachache, Trembling


Martin Silvertant

Martin Silvertant

Co-founder of Embrace ASD, autism researcher, writer, ironically silver award-winning graphic designer, and type designer. I am also autistic, and I fight dodecahedragons during sleep onset.

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