When I got back to school in sixth form after so long off, it was weird. Everyone had raved about the jump from GCSEs to A levels, how much harder it would be. But personally, at the start of the year, I was surprised. I didn’t find my subjects (English Literature, History and Spanish) all that difficult, and I kept on top of work fine. If anything, I was a bit bored.
It became apparent that I’d gone in expecting it to be much harder than it was, and part of that, I believe, was because I’d sort of settled into the level of stress that I’d experienced at the end of the GCSE course. Due to the COVID rearrangements, I didn’t do my exams, but rather ‘in-class assessments’, which were basically exams only there were twice as many and they were stretched out over a period of six weeks. Therefore, I’d gotten used to functioning at that extremely high level of stress, doing tons of revision, constantly, almost on the edge of burnout. So the return to a ‘normal’, baseline workload at the start of year 12 came as something of a surprise.
During the holidays, I’d done a fair bit of summer work, reading all the English set texts, and as much as I could from the recommended reading list. I’d also begun researching the history topic we were doing, just for my own enjoyment and because in the structureless drifting of the summer holidays, it felt good to do something concrete and productive.
However, all this extra work became a slight problem when I got back to school because I quickly found that not everybody had done the summer work, which put me ahead. While I’d been studying, most other people had been doing the traditional holiday pastimes of ignoring their studies and enjoying themselves – I’d overestimated how much work everybody else would do. This is something that I’ve noticed when perusing aspie forums. There’s a tendency that people on the spectrum have where we can find certain repetitive tasks engaging which neurotypicals might find boring – because our brains are wired differently, we can get enjoyment out of typically boring or menial tasks, and can hyperfixate for long periods. In my case, I enjoy studying, especially literature, and so when I started back at school, I had already covered a lot of the course at home by myself, and so I didn’t find my lessons particularly challenging.
What I did find, though, was that my level of overstimulation skyrocketed. At first, I attributed this to the new setup. Maybe the reason I felt so drained at the end of the day was because I was now spending my break and lunch times in the incredibly noisy sixth form centre (an open plan building with high ceilings, always rammed with over three hundred bustling people). Or perhaps it was because I wasn’t used to having free periods, and my overstimulation was down to the lack of structure in these periods. I didn’t know.
So eventually, when talking to my mum about it, we realised that my overstimulation was due to the fact I was effectively bored. I had already covered the topics we were doing in class on my own, and grasped the concepts easily. Subsequently, I didn’t feel challenged in my lessons. And the fact that I was bored, always looking for something else to do, meant that I was more sensitive to stimulation – because if I’m not focused on a task, then I’m taking in sensory input, generating stimulation. And that means I’m using up my mental batteries. And so by the end of the day, despite the work being easy, and having fewer lessons, I was absolutely exhausted from overstimulation. This meant that I couldn’t always do the things I wanted to do outside of school, and so my own projects suffered. I stopped meeting up with friends, because all I wanted to do when I got home was rest and de-stim on my own.
It also meant that I was more agitated in lessons, and more hypersensitive to noise: previously, I hardly ever used my noise-cancelling headphones in class, but now I started wearing them constantly around my neck and frequently put them on in class, using them to block out noise or to play music to keep myself feeling grounded. Needless to say, overstimulation is not a pleasant feeling.
So, I emailed my SEN mentor, and we set up a meeting, where I explained how I was feeling and relayed the ideas we had already come up with at home about potential causes of the overstimulation. My mentor agreed with my reasoning, and discussed options with me. Then we emailed my teachers and communicated that I would need extra work to do in class, and that they should be aware that I may finish extension tasks quickly, but feel awkward asking for more work. After this, my teachers were very good at providing extension tasks, expressly communicating to me during lessons what extension work I could do. This helped a lot, and having formally acknowledged the situation made me feel more confident in taking responsibility to make sure for myself that I asked for extension work where I needed it.
The take away from this? I think a big part of SEN that is often overlooked is that being underchallenged can cause just as many problems as being overworked. Understimulation can be just as distressing as overstimulation, to the point where the ‘symptoms’ actually feel rather similar. But where there is often loads of support available for those who are struggling from too much pressure, sometimes there’s less support in place for those who don’t feel challenged enough and who therefore end up struggling to maintain a balance.
Another strategy was for me to start wearing ‘calmers’, which are these little earbud things designed to fit into your ear and cut off certain higher frequencies by directing noise in a specific way into the ear. They help to limit some of the stressful pitches in noisy environments and have helped keep me calm in class, as well as making the sixth-form centre manageable, but they are far more discreet than noise-cancelling headphones, and aren’t as isolating – I can still hear conversations and interact with my friends.
I still need my headphones from time to time, but overall the issue has pretty much been dealt with. I just thought I’d share this story in case it helps others who might be struggling with overstimulation but don’t know why. It certainly took me several weeks to figure out the reasons why I was feeling so drained, and how best to tackle them.
In any case, thank you for reading. Any likes, comments, shares or follows are much appreciated!