Sensory Overload

Sensory overload manifests itself in different ways within those who are autistic. Young children tend to lash out violently, because that is what tends to come naturally to them. I used to throw things at my mom, to the point of putting her in danger. It wasn’t because I was angry or hated her; it was sheer frustration and I needed to release it. I didn’t know how else to do that other than how human nature told me to act toward something which was threatening my well-being (or what I instinctively felt was threatening my well-being): throw something and run.

Until a few years ago, when I started therapy, I didn’t understand any of the whys or hows. The throwing had diminished over the years, as I adapted other ways to vent my frustration in not knowing why I was so overwhelmed. This is also why many autistic individuals – especially children – have a tendency toward wandering/bolting. If and when a situation becomes too overwhelming or isn’t stimulating our brain in a way in which we instinctively find satisfying, our primal nature leads us to remove ourselves from that situation.

I encountered this last March, when I was overwhelmed by some potentially devastating information. I screamed, I cried, I didn’t know what to do. Rather than lash out and throw something or become violent toward myself (more on that in a bit), I bolted. This lead me to briskly walk down the street until something triggered in my head telling me I needed to stop, because running away wasn’t going to help me get away from the sensory overload. It was in my head. So I stopped, tried to process the information I had, and let out a wail. I collapsed on the lawn of the house of which I had paused. My mom and a friend talked me through it a bit and I came back to our house, where I did all I could do to expel that negative energy: I stomped my feet, I screamed, I cried, I flapped, I rocked, and everything that looked like the tantrum of a toddler.

Could I help doing any of this? No. Should I have done anything else? No. Thirty years ago, would I have lashed out violently at my mom or whomever was nearest to me? Absolutely. But because I am older, wiser, and have learned both through experience and therapy that stimming is okay, as long as it isn’t harming myself or anyone else… those primal urges to lash out physically at others & myself are still there, but I am able to use alternate actions to express my frustration and vent.

Throwing things changed as I got older; rather than lashing out at others, something in my brain switched and I started self-harming, as well as having constant suicidal thoughts. These were almost always present, or at least just bubbling under the surface, from about third grade until about four years ago (when I started therapy and taking Celexa to lessen the effects of depression & anxiety). The thoughts still sneak in occasionally (including yesterday when I was having a particularly bad-but-thankfully-brief panic attack), but I now have the emotional tools and understanding of my executive function to be able to deal with them… and most of the time that works.