Autism and Sensory Overload

People with autism are often highly sensitive to their environments. This, of course, can mean different things to different people on the spectrum.

But, in general, people with autism have unusually delicate sensory systems, meaning that their senses (sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste) can all be easily overloaded. Even more challenging, it can be difficult for people with autism to "just ignore" sensory information as it comes in.

Young woman squinting eye closed, hand covering ear, close-up
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Unlike people with typical sensory systems, people on the spectrum may not be able to ignore or selectively filter out sounds like car alarms or the clamor of a crowd at a sporting event.

Sensory Overload in Autism

Sensory overload involves more than just sounds. It can be any environmental stimulus that interferes with the stability of the environment. In some cases, the individual can be so sensitive as to react adversely to sensations you might not even notice.

Examples include:

  • Sounds: Persistent sounds such as lawnmowers, washing machines, ticking clocks, dripping water, or traffic noises
  • Sights: Florescent lights that flicker or the fluttering of curtains, posters, and wall hangings
  • Smells: Including heavy or distinct smells such as cleaning supplies, new carpets, perfumes, foods, and cologne
  • Textures: Including the textures of slippery foods or the feeling of mucilaginous glues or gels (although the intolerance or favoring of textures can vary from one individual to the next)

Variations

Surprisingly, some people on the spectrum are hypo-sensitive, meaning that they have diminished response to sensory stimulus and often crave sensation. This can lead to stimming in the form of flapping, pacing, or other repetitive behaviors.

People on the spectrum can be hypersensitive to certain stimuli (such as loud noise) and hypo-sensitive in others (such as needing physical sensation to feel calm).

Sensory regulation—the feeling that one is experiencing just the right amount of sensory input—is important to physical and psychological comfort. 

According to research, sensory dysregulation is one of the major reasons why people with autism have meltdowns or find themselves unable to manage ordinary situations. This includes people with high-functioning autism who are otherwise able to handle many forms of stress.

Sensory Overload Outside of Autism

If you are a person with normal sensory regulation, you may find it hard to understand why someone would fly out of control as a result of flickering lights or loud noises. Despite what you may think, oversensitivity to sensations is not limited to people with autism; it affects all of us.

Even people without autism can be "overloaded" if a car alarm outside of their window continues for 10 to 20 minutes without reprieve. It also explains why some people shave to leave a club or concert when the noise and clamor are too much to bear.

In the end, every one of us has sensory "settings" that tell us when a sound, sight, smell, taste, or other sensation is simply too much to bear. It can differ from one person to the next.

And, as we age, our sensitivity to certain sensations such as sound can also increase. There is even evidence that smaller children may be less able to filter sensations and will respond with meltdowns.

According to a 2018 report published in JAMA Pediatrics, one in six children has sensory processing difficulties, causing frequent meltdowns that parents sometimes mistake for tantrums or bad behavior.

When faced with "too much" external stimulus, particularly when it comes from different sources we cannot filter out, people without autism may respond with symptoms such as:

  • Anxiety and fear
  • Restlessness
  • Loss of focus
  • Feeling overwhelmed or agitated
  • Increased heart rate and respiration
  • A preoccupation with or inability to ignore the source of the discomfort
  • The strong impulse to leave the source of the discomfort
  • Irritability and anger

Many of these symptoms are no different than those experienced in people with autism.

A Word From Verywell

Understanding sensory challenges is an important step toward helping a person with autism to establish a comfortable environment. 

It is also an important tool for understanding the behaviors of people with autism. It can help you anticipate and manage reactions to the sensory assaults that can lead to meltdowns and disruptions.

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