Autism and Sensory Overload

People with autism are often highly sensitive to their environments. That, of course, means 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, and 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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So, unlike people with typical sensory systems, people on the spectrum may not be able to, for example, notice a car alarm going off and then decide not to listen to it.

Sensory Challenges in Autism

Some of the environmental challenges that can negatively impact people with autism include:

  • Florescent lights which flicker and/or buzz
  • Smells from cleaning supplies, new carpets, perfumes, certain foods, and cologne
  • Fluttering curtains, posters, and other wall hangings
  • Persistent sounds such as landscapers mowing lawns or blowing leaves, babies crying or even cooing, dogs barking outside, ticking clocks, dripping water, traffic noises, etc.
  • Foods and materials with specific textures (these vary from person to person, but slippery, goopy foods and materials such as glue, gels, etc. are often problematic)

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

Even more surprisingly, many people on the spectrum can be hypersensitive in some ways (unable to bear loud noise, for example) but be 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. 

In fact, according to many studies, sensory dysregulation is one of the major reasons why people with autism, even high functioning people who are able to handle many forms of stress, tend to meltdown, or find themselves unable to manage a perfectly ordinary situation.

Sensory Challenges Outside of Autism

If you are a person with normal sensory regulation, you might find it hard to understand why someone would fly out of control as a result of flickering lights or loud noises. Until you put yourself in that person's shoes by remembering when you have had a similar experience. In the end, everyone has their sensory limits and not just people with autism.

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.

Even adults who have learned to filter out stimuli can sometimes be overloaded. Take the following situations as examples:

  • The weather is hot and humid, you are sweating and miserable. You're sitting on the porch, trying to catch a breeze, when a baby starts wailing... a neighbor turns up the music... or a car stops in front of your house with a radio blaring bass. Suddenly your blood pressure rises, and you're itching for a fight.
  • You're visiting the mall around the holiday season. As you visit your favorite shops, you're overwhelmed by the number of people, the noise, and the ubiquitous Christmas music. You step out of the shops for a breather and realize that the local high school band is now starting to play Christmas carols in the food court. Your head feels like it's about to explode.
  • You meet a friend of a friend at a party. For some reason, this friend seems to have no notion of personal space. You try to be polite as he/she stands two inches from your nose while loudly telling the story of his/her life. You step away, and he/she steps with you. Just to get away, you feign a terrible headache and escape to the bathroom.

Understanding sensory challenges is an important step toward helping a person with autism to establish a comfortable environment. It's also an important tool for understanding behaviors and for helping a person with autism to plan for and manage their reactions to the sensory assaults we all experience every day.

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  • Kong M, Moreno MA. Sensory Processing in Children. JAMA Pediatr. 2018;172(12):1208. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2018.3774