You’re probably wondering what snakes have to do with overstimulation and autism. Well, let me give you a little analogy to help explain what overstimulation feels like, and why for me, as someone who is hypersensitive to sound, maintaining a ‘normal’ face in conversation is sometimes difficult.
I like to imagine that there’s a person inside my head (think of the Pixar film Inside Out, except she’s not an embodiment of an emotion, she’s just me). She’s on her own, standing in the middle of a nice open space. She has a little control panel in front of her, (again, like Inside Out) which is where she controls my actions.
She also has a sword (after all, swords are pretty awesome!).
Now, whenever I hear a sound, it’s like something darts out of the darkness to touch that little swordswoman in my head. I imagine that something like a snake, or a sentient vine – it just reaches out and touches her. Small sounds are just like little nudges, maybe a poke in the arm. They don’t hurt, but what’s important is that there is still a physical sensation, even with the small sounds. These small sounds can easily be brushed off – my little swordswoman can easily slice through those pesky snakes which try to touch her.
When there are just a few sounds, and they’re fairly quiet, she can handle it. It also helps when the sounds are predictable – she knows what the snakes are going to do before they leap at her, and so it’s easy for her to deal with them, spinning and slicing and deflecting with her sword. Each one still takes up a level of her concentration to dispatch, and it’s harder if there are lots of them coming at once, but she’s been doing this for a while, and so most of the time she fends them off almost subconsciously.
But louder sounds are harder to deal with; they are bigger snakes jumping out of the darkness from every angle. And she has to dodge or deflect every single one, which requires more concentration.
You can imagine how this gets rather tiring, constantly swinging her sword, having to always be ready to deal with each individual snake, each sound that comes at her.
But that’s not all, because all the while that she’s dealing with that barrage of attacks from the leaping snakes, she still has to hit all of those buttons on the control panel. She still has to make sure that I, the person who everybody sees, makes the correct facial expressions – that I perform the appropriate social behaviours. Even while fighting off snakes, she knows she’s still expected to get me to ‘act normal’.
Lucky for me, the little person inside my head is very good at multitasking – she’s a skilled swordswoman who usually manages to keep the control panel working even when there are lots of snakes to deal with at the same time.
But sometimes, when everything’s flying at her at once, she can’t get to the control panel in time, and so the mask slips. I forget to perform a facial expression; my focus drifts away from conversation; I stop paying attention, or even if I am still listening, I stop making eye contact – because in my head the little swordswoman has slipped a little. A snake gets through her defence and manages to land a hit. And once one gets through, it becomes hard for her to think about the control panel at all. She has to work really hard to not get overwhelmed by all the snakes. And I feel her tiredness. If it goes on too long, then I start to feel her pain too.
And when the sounds get too loud, and fast, and unpredictable, then she gets so tired that even after all of the big snakes have stopped attacking, she’s too tired to fend off the little ones, and in a way then, because she’s already so tired, the little snakes become just as much of a challenge as the big ones.
The purpose of this allegory was to try to communicate what it feels like to live in my brain. My brain processes sensory stimulation differently to how neurotypicals process it – I am hypersensitive. I often feel like for every piece of sensory input, I have to devote a little bit of my concentration to it. So, when I’m at a party with lots of loud sounds, it becomes draining because the sounds slowly chip away at my concentration, as the back of my mind is preoccupied with keeping up a little defence. Each sound has to be caught, packaged up and sent off before it can be processed, and while this takes a fraction of a second for my mind to do, it still takes a tiny amount of energy, and this energy loss can build up over time to the point where I have no energy left to make facial expressions.
Thus, it can appear that I suddenly lose expression midway through conversation. My voice will go monotone. I will lose all ability to make eye contact. In more severe moments, I will lose the ability to speak and may just start crying. This is overstim catching up to me – and I get a physical feeling of being drained.
With this in mind, it’s easy to see why a lot of autistics don’t like loud or unpredictable noises. It’s important for me to stress though that this isn’t because we fear loud noises, it’s because they cause actual pain and exhaustion. This is an important distinction, because the most popular way we treat fear is through exposure therapy – but exposure to loud sounds will never help an autistic get over their struggle with loud noises, it will just cause them more pain, and lead them to just try to repress that pain, and we all know that internalising pain and emotions isn’t a good thing in the long term.
When a large truck passes me on the street, I sometimes have what I call a ‘freeze-up’ reaction. I will literally stop in my tracks, and sometimes shut my eyes. When I was younger, I used to put my hands over my ears, but nowadays my masking instinct usually says ‘grown-ups don’t put their hands over their ears’ (a foolish notion, I know, but it persists) and so instead I just freeze. But this isn’t to do with fear, it’s to do with processing. My attention is suddenly dragged away from whatever else I was doing (i.e. walking) in order to process the sudden loud noise that I become unable to do anything else until the noise has passed – my mind literally goes blank for a few seconds in order to give my brain the space it needs to process the noise.
It’s worth mentioning that it’s not just sounds that can be tiring to process. While sound is certainly the biggest drain, I also have the same ‘freeze-up’ reaction to bright light – sunlight beaming erratically through the trees when I’m in a car can be quite uncomfortable not just because it’s bright but because it’s unpredictable and thus means I can’t concentrate.
So, that’s how it feels to be in my brain. I’m very grateful to that little swordswoman who’s always working so hard in my mind to keep processing all of that sensory input, and I’m mindful to give her breaks every now and again. I’ve found that it’s been helpful to have people in my life who know about my asperger’s, and who I can still be around even when the mask has dropped. My mum is also especially good at noticing when my mask has dropped – sometimes she notices I’ve stopped making facial expressions before even I do.
Thanks for reading! While my experiences certainly aren’t applicable to all people on the spectrum, sensitivity to sound is a common autistic trait, and I hope this was a helpful insight. I’m grateful for any likes, comments or follows – they really help out this blog!