A Sensory World

My perception of sensory overload and its importance

My perception of the senses, and why my experience of sensory input is so unusual, has evolved over time as I have sought more information and learned more about myself. It’s an area I’m particularly interested in, as sensory profiles can vary greatly from person to person. I see the accommodation of sensory needs as extremely important and not something that should be ignored or dismissed like I have seen countless times.

I believe everyone has a unique sensory profile, gets over- and under-stimulated, and can experience sensory overload when considerable time is spent in an environment that isn’t suited to their needs. The way I can react to certain situations could seem extreme or abnormal, but that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with me, instead that the way society has been designed isn’t very compatible with how I work and process information.

The stimuli that bother me the most are sound and light. I seem to be wired to work more efficiently in quieter environments and have a lower threshold than most people for noise. This is why I actively stay away from very loud environments, and have to weigh up the costs and benefits for my health when thinking of going to busy events. Similarly, I am much more relaxed and comfortable in environments which are dark or dimly lit as opposed to rooms fitted with bright strip lighting. Temperature can be problematic for me too, so hot summer months can be exhausting.

If I’m in an environment where my threshold for tolerance is breached, for example on a busy street densely populated with people and cars, I can reach the point where my body is unable to cope with the overstimulation and it becomes overwhelmed. I start to get nauseous to the point where I feel I’m going to vomit, then slightly feverish and shaky. I being to lose my patience and panic as I try in vain to think of exit routes from the situation. I often push through days like that and end up with a rush of difficult emotions and fatigue when I get back into a safe environment.

There are many people like me who are trying to muddle through a world that poses as an assault on their senses, and I am grateful for the situations I can tolerate and the strategies that I have learnt help keep my body somewhat calm:

  • I am lucky to live close to some nature, so I often go for walks in the woods so I can retreat and take time to process my day
  • Playing music and listening to music are both very beneficial for me. I take headphones wherever I go
  • I wear cool clothing a lot as I’m more aware of how much heat bothers me
  • I try to limit my time on a screen as I can’t tolerate the light for long, and I often print things off instead of reading them online
  • I stim a lot with my hands and by moving my body. Stimming is great
  • When I’ve got a busy day, I plan before and seek out quiet spaces that I can easily get to. I don’t leave many things up to chance as I’ve already got enough to deal with
  • I have certain colours that soothe my visual system (dark greens, red and browns). I can physically feel my eye muscles relaxing when I look at them as opposed to brighter colours
  • I’ve learnt to accept that my life can’t be as busy and spontaneous as other people’s, so I try not to overload myself with extra events and demands

I have learnt a lot about myself in the past 4 months, but when I was younger I had no idea of the concept of sensory overload or that I sensed things in a slightly unusual way. The pangs of nausea used to terrify me and sent me into a cycle of emetophobia, and although I’m aware that I very rarely vomit from sensory overload, it’s still nerve-wracking when I experience it. The physiological impacts of daily life on my body and mind make it harder to keep up with the bulk of society without descending into a full-on burnout, and that worries me as I go into university. However, more acknowledgement and some simple adjustments would make things a lot easier for me and people who process like me.

Adjustments for autistic people and others who have sensory needs that are different to the norm are vital. We don’t deserve to be left behind to try and manage it ourselves just because our needs challenge the one-size-fits-all model that is used across many systems including education and mental health. There is significantly more awareness and thought going into to how to make society more flexible, however more accessibility and accommodations are needed. I want to help change perspectives so that more people are aware of the how overwhelming this loud world can be and what adjustments can be made to help with that. ~ Josie

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