Why does your computer suddenly choke on you? Are 1,000 windows open? Is YouTube playing while Facebook is showing cat videos? Is a browser doing some sneaky scans on the hard drive? It’s all eating the data and memory. Too many tasks at once! Computer crash!
Well, imagine an autistic brain working like that. Give us too many tasks, and we’ll overload!
Our brains can take in a lot of details that other brains naturally filter out. These details become tasks for us to process. Like a computer runs a software program, our brains are taking in senses and processing them. Too much input, and we shut down.
If someone who is non-autistic or doesn’t struggle with sensory issues handles a basic situation like putting gas in a car, that’s it. Focus on that, and the task is accomplished. An autistic person wouldn’t have it so easy. We would smell the gas, hear the ticks of the meter, feel the air, taste the humidity in the air, panic at strangers, and so forth. A simple independent task can be very stressful and/or tiring.
Some places have more sensory tasks than others and have a higher risk of creating sensory overload, leading to shutdown. They are often places that have crowds of people. Examples are big box stores such as Walmart or Costco. Attending a rock concert or a show at a mega church is another. I’m going to pick one example just so we can look at it step by step and see how an autistic person can handle it.
Take me out to the ballgame
Let’s take a common social outing of attending a baseball game. For any typical thinker, this can be a simple task. There are a lot of things going on, but they can shut out all the sights and sounds to accomplish simple tasks such as buying tickets and finding the seats. Sure, bringing children can add a little extra stress, because they add variables. Children need to use the bathroom, want snacks, chatter, and get bored. However, attending to children are tasks that a person can do if they make their brain shut out all other forms of stimulus at a baseball game. If the crowd stands up and roars, the parent can tend to their child who spilled a hot dog on their shirt. If the video is showing Keyboard Cat, and the crowd is watching and laughing, the parent can listen and follow their child as they point to the dog running on the field.
However, for an autistic person (or anyone who gets distracted by sensory input), things that seem simple are suddenly very challenging! We cannot just buy a ticket and be done. We can’t shut out other sensory input as easily, so we get overwhelmed. There are too many things to look at, smell, and feel, such as people pushing against us in line. The sound of the ticket seller asking for money can be drowned out by the bark of a dog. The touch of a credit card can be overwhelmed by the touch of the ticket taker’s hand as they take the card, and you drop the card. It’s not just that. It can be a huge list of things to sense. All of these senses compete with the simple task of getting a ticket, and suddenly, it is not so simple.
It is hard for the brain to push out all of the other input to focus on one thing. Suddenly, we are like a computer, trying to handle multiple tasks at once. We are overprocessing and overheating. When this happens to a computer, it acts like a computer. But when it happens to someone with sensory processing difficulties, the behavior is definitely not expected. When the behavior happens, boy, it can be embarrassing. We can do something as mild as space out, stammer, make limited eye contact, or other behaviors that are explainable as social awkwardness. We can also behave in ways that are much more pronounced. If you are autistic or have an autistic child, you know what I mean. The range can include stimming, having tics, scripting, running away, making sounds (sometimes loud!), and so on.
How you can help
Having a person with us is extremely helpful. Some people need helpers. Some luck out by having friends who understand and can help when we’re showing signs of overload. There are plenty of examples of spouses or partners who lean in and help when their partner is starting to show stress.
Help can come in different forms. I have been given help, and I have helped others. I have also observed a helper with a person.
A simple way to help is to just keep a person company. Even though the person with autism may not show it, they appreciate the helper. The company of another person gives someone validation. It also gives a sense of safety and security. If you are with me and helping me, I feel like I have significance in this world, and I do not feel as lost. I have seen helpers leave the presence of a person with autism when the person is not ready, and the person expresses anxious behaviors. It is great to check with the person first before leaving their presence.
Sometimes when a person is on overload, it helps to speak or act for them so they can get their task accomplished. If the individual wants to do it themselves, they will express it. If they cannot express their feelings (some people struggle with communicating this when overloaded), you will know because you have that relationship built with the person. Sometimes when I am with a friend, and I am spacing out due to overload, they will know to wait until I am ready, or distract me with something until I calm down and proceed. Distraction is also a good tactic, whether by use of object, activity or conversation.
Another strategy for overload is to take a time out. Sometimes taking a minute to be away from stimulus calms the brain. The brain does not have to take in as much information, and all those brain activities can chill and sort themselves out.
Being an adult with autism, but teaching teens with autism, I am learning to be vigilant of not only my own needs, but of the needs of others. I am hopeful that this information is helpful to both people with autism and caregivers of those with autism.
Mary Janca works as an educator for individuals with autism and their families. She is on the autism Spectrum and uses her own insight to connect with others and guide them to understanding autism in ways that trainings and literature may not reach.
She has been teaching college, high and middle school for over 20 years to students of all types of learning styles. She holds a Master’s degree in Special Education: Emotional and Behavioral Disorders and has state certifications in multiple high school and middle school subjects. She has also been involved in many agencies as either a helper or receiver, including: ASNC, TEACCH, Vocational Rehabilitation, and specialized school environments. Her goal is to be able to help in as many settings as possible, because there is such a high need for educators.
Mary enjoys the quirks of having autism but appreciates being able to connect with others. She goes through many of the trials that most individuals on the spectrum face, including trouble with taking the perspective of others, following expected behaviors, and managing emotions. She hopes to keep learning about the field of autism, so that she can continue to reach out and help others.Tags: ASNC, autism, autism acceptance, autism advocacy, autism anxiety, autism asperger parenting tips, autism awareness, autism behavior, autism communication, autism nc, autism north carolina, autism society north carolina, autism society of NC, Autism Society of North Carolina, Autism spectrum, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Autism Spectrum Disorders, autism support, Developmental disability