Updated: May 31, 2020
Wednesday, 27th May 2020
Sensory overload is a significant aspect of autism and too easily overlooked. When I think back, there were many signs that J was easily overloaded. Even from day one. But I think pre-school was the real eye-opener.
It's hard to put into words how hyper J was the first day we got back from pre-school. She managed a full day with no problems (to my surprise) and so we were back around 4pm. Well... J flew into a state of extreme excitement, screaming and whirling and impossibly effervescent. I remember feeling dazed, almost, watching it. It was hysteria personified. I'd heard that children could be quite hyper from the tiredness at nursery, but this had to be seen to be believed. I can still remember it now and it was nearly two years ago.
So, what does sensory overload do and what causes it?
Well, in my experience there are a few things that can cause sensory overload and what it leads to ranges from irritability to full-blown meltdowns. Places with bright lighting, loud music or lots of people are great contenders for sensory overload. Picture your local Superstore - perhaps Sainsbury's or Tesco - and think of the colours, garish lighting, number of people, things going on, voices, smells. It's a lot for a child to take in. But a child on the Spectrum, like J, is quickly overwhelmed, and cannot put into words what it's doing to her. That's why I stopped going.
Another contender for sensory overload is the softplay centre, a favourite among mums. It took me a while to discover that these weren't good for J. She seemed excited by them... there were no signs whilst we were there of any problems. In fact, it was the one place where if I took her, she'd run off without even checking to see I was around. She liked them, it seemed.
But home, afterwards, was a different story. J would crash, tired out and overloaded, and lash out in anger or frustration, or dissolve into tears over something small. Home was her safe space, so she let it all out there. The volcano would erupt.
And the last one for me to mention is the Children's Party. J has always loved parties and yet hated them too. She is excited by them, loves the balloons, the cakes, the bouncy castle. But she is also like an outsider looking onto an impenetrable world once we're there, surrounded by sights and sounds and, on top of that, children she doesn't know how to talk to. It's a confetti of confusion. And the aftermath, once home, can be extreme.
So what to do?
In my case I've eliminated all supermarket shopping and switched to online, I avoid any busy places in the afternoon or post-nursery (easy to do during Lockdown!) and I rule most children's parties out or have a serious recovery plan for afterwards.
It's not all doom and gloom. I've realised that time in a field of flowers or bouncing on the trampoline is infinitely better than any of the above options for J - and I'm happy with that.