Autistic sensory overload, and how I decompress.

I never knew that what I experienced on a regular basis was due to autistic sensory overload.

Until I discovered more about autism, I had no idea that my body experienced the world vastly differently to the way that most other people experience it. I assumed everyone had the same difficulties. Therefore, when I was struggling with, what I now know to be, autistic sensory overload I didn’t take care of myself around it. I would push myself to do things that were painful to me because that’s what I thought everyone else was going through. They managed to happily get on with things. They seem to cope easily. So I should be able to… right?

However, my late autism diagnosis has been incredibly life changing for me. My brain is spontaneously reframing every painful experience, every memory, and every struggle that I’ve experienced in the last 50 years. This is leading to lots of self-compassion for the way I’ve managed up until now.

Today I’ve been thinking a lot about my sensory experiences from this new perspective. I felt huge waves grief as I thought back through all the struggles I have had. Because I now I realise that what I’ve been experiencing is autistic sensory overload.

So, I have come to a decision.

From today I’m going to be holding my sensory system very tenderly.

A snapshot of two minutes of my life.

dark brain with lightning bolts demonstrating autistic sensory overload

Right now, all the sensory input coming at me feels like it’s getting right inside my body. It feels violent. The light attacking me from all angles – hurting my head, making me wince. Smells (car fumes, cigarette smoke, perfume, food cooking) burning my nostrils and stomach. Prickling, itching sensations of the air on my skin. The tiny fold in my clothing feeling like a sharp stone pressing into my flesh. Noisy rackets from skateboards, people talking (shouting), babies screaming (pick it up and hug it for god’s sake!), dogs barking, cars growling, radios and phones blaring.

I can’t turn any of this off or filter it out. It’s all so loud and overwhelming to me, and all I’m doing is sitting in my bedroom. I live on a quiet street, but I can hear and smell things from very far away, even with the windows closed.

This is one of the reasons that I rarely go out. If things are this loud from inside my home, then imagine my sensory experience when I leave the house! It is common for autistic people like me to avoid going out, the sensory experience can be just too overwhelming.

Autistic sensory overload is a painful existence.

It’s a constant irritating pain that I’ve taught myself to ignore (or mask). On the occasions that I’ve mentioned it to people I’ve been told to not complain, to stop whinging, and that I’m overreacting! So I’ve ended up suppressing my reactions.

In the past I’ve used words like nasal rape/aural rape to accurately describe smells and sounds and their effect on me. These descriptions are shocking to people, but I never understood why. I thought other people were having the same experiences and I was always surprised by their surprise.

Now I know differently. I now know that I’m autistic and this is why my sensory experiences are so overwhelming.

A new plan for self-care.

For 50 years I’ve been putting up with this sensory pain. But now I’m going to hold myself tenderly.

autistic sensory overload decompression bath with legs and pink petals floating on the water.

I will get myself a weighted blanket so I can feel held tight and I can finally surrender. Noise cancelling headphones will be used to soften the sounds coming in. Treating myself to Irlens filters in my glasses will stop the glare and the flashing of wrong lights. I will avoid places where I might be assaulted by the wrong smells and I will ask people to not wear perfume when they are around me. The self-soothing strokes that I give myself will be enjoyed more, and for much longer. Using stim toys will not be accompanied with the thought that I’m a ‘weirdo’. I now know that my two-hour long decompression baths are absolutely necessary so I will take more space, more time, more stillness, and more silence for myself. I will allow myself to rest fully during the autistic shutdowns I experience due to this system overload.

Yes, it’s definitely time to hold myself much more tenderly.

Comments welcome.

Do you have sensory overload like this? Feel free to share your experiences below.

Lilith x

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