Aspects of Aspergers

perspectives from the spectrum

Strategies for dealing with sensory overload

Posted by capriwim on January 1, 2011

Happy New Year to all.

I have decided to write about strategies that I use – strategies that I have found effective in dealing with some of the challenges of Asperger Syndrome. Everyone has strategies for dealing with life and its challenges, because everyone has their own difficulties, but the challenges for people with Asperger Syndrome can be different from those of people who are not on the autistic spectrum. Also, because our minds work differently in some ways, the strategies that work for us might be different from the strategies that work for most people.

In the past I spent a lot of time reading self-help books for dealing with certain difficulties, and would get quite frustrated that the methods they suggested weren’t helpful for me, or that their explanations for the cause of certain difficulties simply didn’t apply to me. So, since I started reading about Aspergers, I started trying to work out strategies that would specifically suit the way that the autistic brain works, and I have experimented with all kinds of strategies for myself.

I must point out that what works for me will not work for everyone on the autistic spectrum. We are all different. But maybe some of the strategies will work for some people, or will give people ideas for finding their own strategies.

At first I was thinking of doing a big list of all the strategies I use, but then I decided it would be more organised to divide Aspergers up into the different sorts of challenges it presents, and the strategies I have for each of them. Recently I did a talk on what it’s like to live with Asperger Syndrome, and I found it useful to divide it up into three categories as follows:

  1. Sensory integration difficulties
  2. Difficulties with multi-tasking
  3. Difficulties with organisation

I will write a separate entry for all three. This entry shall be about the first challenge. For me one of the biggest challenges of Asperger Syndrome is difficulties with sensory integration, which can result in sensory overload. Some examples of this are:

  • I am hypersensitive to noise, so that too much loud noise can actually feel painful, and feel like it is intruding into me.
  • When lots of people are talking around me, at the same time, such as in a pub, I get overwhelmed and start to zone out, and can’t make sense of any of it.
  • Fluorescent lighting makes me feel dizzy and unwell, and I can start to shake and sweat. When the lights are turned off, I can feel a tangible difference – my whole body relaxes, and I feel a huge sense of relief, even if I hadn’t been consciously aware of the fluorescent lighting.
  • I have a hypersensitive vestibular system – I could never go on merry-go-rounds as a kid without feeling very unwell. I would fall on the ground after getting off the merry-go-round and be unable to stand up for a while. As an adult, I get this feeling to a lesser extent in buses and sometimes in cars, from the motion, particularly in areas with winding roads.

Here are the strategies I use to help with sensory overload:

  • Plenty of rest – making sure I get enough sleep each night, and taking a whole day to rest (in quiet and darkness) when I’ve had a day which involved a lot of sensory input. I find being tired increases my sensory hypersensitivity, and makes me a lot less able to tolerate it.
  • Baths and swimming – the sensation of water is very helpful to me. I have at least two baths a day, which people tell me is very extravagant and a waste of water, but for me it’s a very helpful strategy so I don’t see it as wasteful. I think it is partly the light pressure of the water on my body and the sensory feeling of the wetness which helps me. Also with swimming there is the positive feeling of doing physical exercise. I like to go in the steam room too, which I find a bit uncomfortable when I’m in there, but it makes me feel very refreshed afterwards.
  • Light pressure – when I realised that light pressure helps, then I found all kinds of other ways to do it. I wear clothes that provide a light even pressure over my body, like leggings, tights, tight-fitting polo-neck tops. I find the pressure that is right for me, and I find it has to be even – if an item of clothing is tighter in one area, then that is uncomfortable. I also tuck my duvet tightly into my mattress, so that it creates a light pressure over my body, and this helps me sleep better. I got this idea from reading about weighted blankets – weighted blankets are expensive, but tucking your duvet into your bed is free. But it’s important to get a duvet that is a size bigger than your mattress for this to work effectively – I have a double size mattress and a king size duvet.
  • Massage – this is another form of pressure. I occasionally go for massage therapy, but this is quite expensive, so more often I will massage myself, as this doesn’t cost any money. I mix aromatherapy oil with olive oil and I massage myself all over when I get out of the bath. I sit on a towel on the bathroom floor and massage myself, starting with my feet and going all the way up to my face and head.
  • Scented candles/oils – I am hypersensitive to smell, which can be a good thing if it’s a smell I like. For instance, I really like the smell of lavender, and find it very soothing, so I like to pour a few drops of lavender oil into my oil burner. I like to get scented candles and incense sticks too, but I always make sure to get a smell I like.
  • Irlen lenses – my glasses have Irlen tints. These are quite expensive, and I was lucky that my disabled student allowance paid for them. However, just ordinary tints on your glasses can be helpful – they are obviously not as specifically tailored to your needs as Irlen lenses are, but before I had my Irlen lenses, I got glasses with ordinary tints on from the optician – the tint cost £10 – and this made a huge difference from having no tint.
  • Cranial osteopathy – this is quite expensive, so I don’t have it very often, but when I do have it, it is really helpful for me, and particularly helps with dizziness.
  • Theta waves and alpha waves – this is something I have recently discovered and which makes a huge positive difference. The brain has different waves:

beta waves – your brain wave frequency when you are alert
alpha waves – your brain wave frequency when you are relaxed
theta waves – your brain wave frequency when you are drowsy/falling asleep
delta waves – your brain wave frequency when you are sleeping deeply

It turns out that there is a theory the autistic brain gets stuck on high beta and is in a state of constant hyper-alertness. Being constantly in high beta can lead to anxiety. Listening to alpha waves or theta waves gets the brain to align to these waves, and can be relaxing and soothing. I discovered this quite by chance, before I’d even heard of all the different waves. I was trying out listening to various hypnotism albums, to see if they could help me become organised. There was one that I liked to listen to every day, even though I thought what the guy was saying was a bit daft – I found it very relaxing because of the pulsing noise in the background, which he said was theta waves. So I listened to this every day for a couple of weeks and found myself feeling a lot more balanced and I noticed I wasn’t getting the acute abdominal pains that I normally get. So then I googled theta waves and found the information about the different types of brain waves. I also discovered that SMR waves (which are low beta) are recommended for people on the autistic spectrum, so I started listening to those too, and I find they help a lot with sensory overload. I found MP3 tracks on Amazon, which turned out to be very good value for money – for 79p you can often get a track that lasts for an hour or longer.

So these are my strategies for sensory overload. I do not understand the science behind them, and can’t say that they will work for all autistic people, and they may indeed cause more overload for some people, but they are what I’ve found to be helpful for myself, through trial and error. If anyone else has other strategies they use, please do share them in comments.

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27 Responses to “Strategies for dealing with sensory overload”

  1. Nancy said

    What is Cranial osteopathy?

    • capriwim said

      It’s a therapy where the cranial osteopath holds my head and makes very small movements to loosen my skull bones, so the fluids move more easily – or something like that. I don’t really understand how it works, and was very cynical of it at first, but it turns out it’s very effective in helping me with dizziness and sensory overload. It’s also called craniosacral therapy. There’s a Wikipedia description here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Craniosacral_therapy

  2. polaviconfessions said

    This post is excellent. I’m glad to see that you’ve found ways to help yourself cope with your hypersensitivity. Unfortunately, I have not, as I not only have Asperger’s, but I also have synesthesia, which makes me even more sensitive to things. What do you do in the midst of an emergency situation? Do you have any advice for me?

    • capriwim said

      Thanks for your comment. I think I’m a bit synaesthetic too. In an emergency situation – well, it’s hard to know what you mean, because each situation is different, but for me, if I realise I’ve got really overloaded, I find I need to take a day or two off, and lie in my bed in the dark and in the quiet. I need to withdraw myself or it gets worse. If I am in a situation where I’m out with other people and I can’t just go to bed, then I might go to the loo for a while. I also try to bring my iPod with me, so I can listen to the theta waves.

  3. xuesheng said

    Thanks so much for this post- I also experience sensory overload and tierdness that can get in the way of my work at uni, and it’s a big relief to find someone in the same boat! Could you maybe recommend some particular tracks with SMR waves that helped you? Lots of the ones I’ve found on line are supposed to ‘induce deep trance experiences’- eek! ;-)

  4. Mados said

    This is the frankly best blog on (female) Asperger’s Syndrome I have come across, particularly the posts on sensory overload/issues. It is the xth time I come back to see if there is a new post… (there isn’t). I would like to encourage you to keep up the good work… and I look forward to read more.

  5. Tuandraqueen said

    I really enjoy your blog. I have a ten year old nephew who lives with us now and he has all the symptoms of asbergers but has never been diagnosed. Do you think it’s important to have a professional diagnos him ? We homeschool him and he has improved drastically but he still has many social issues.
    Thanks,
    Regina
    Anchorage, Alaska

  6. jackie said

    this is excellent. i do not have arsebergers or autism ,but was diagnosed with sensory sensitization disorder, which is basically sensory overload. I am currently in college dealing with fluorescent lighting in the classrooms to the point where I am missing class and not able to function without feeling like I am going to faint. Do you have any experience/suggestions in how I can get through the day without leaving the classroom? Am I able to get those lenses?

  7. Russ said

    Your experience with aspergers seems almost identical to mine though i was diagnosed with tourrettes as a kid. Even down to the merry go round. I have always resisted taking meds. Do you take (or know of) any meds to help with the head dizziness? In my case it is an awful feeling that is extremely bothersome and interferive.

  8. Eleanor said

    Hi, I’d just like to add my support to the above! This is the first aspergers blog/resource that I could truly identify with, and that was genuinely helpful! I’m getting so tired of reading about the disability aspect.. like you say, everyone’s different, they all have their own challenges and maybe in a way we’re lucky that so many other people share similar experiences, that we can share strategies to manage reactions to stimulus that restrict our behaviour? Your article above is just great :) In fact when reading it I realised I do the same with clothing, I’ve just started becoming aware of my requirements for clothes.. and fortunately in the age of jersey there are plenty of options :)
    When I first realised I had an adrenalin reaction to sensory overload/sharp sounds it was such a relief! I no longer misinterpret the feeling as panic or fear, I can register it and allow it to dissipate.. made so much difference to my life…

    Even if you don’t post again, thankyou for what you’ve written, although I’ve said it before, to see that focus on the practicalities and realities of a different ‘wiring’ rather than a focus on disability within a social world is just fabulous :) Thankyou!! :))

  9. Gemma said

    Nice blog. Thanks for creating it. To add to your list the thing I’ve found most helpful: musicians ear plugs. They are an absolute God send :-)

  10. VJ said

    Hello and thank you for this! I’m an Aspie and, while I know many of us suffer from sensory overload, it’s reassuring to read about how someone copes with it. I foolishly went to an open day at a local college in the week as I’m interested in picking up with my studies, but the whole experience really put me off: an over-heated, over-lit room with crowds of people talking, and a really ‘loud’ carpet with clashing colours/pattern. I felt on the verge of tears most of the time, and have felt like that in the past, but at least now I know it’s the Asperger’s (I was diagnosed just before Xmas 2011 at the tender age of 29!)

    I found fanning myself with the prospectus to cool down, and drinking a lot of water helped (like a pint in half a minute), plus keeping my eyes closed and trying to visualize one of my favourite places (some countryside not far from home) also let me shut things out a bit. That said, I’ve felt completely exhausted ever since (3 days and counting) and had to miss work on Friday and probably won’t go in tomorrow either.

    My further concern is I’m supposed to be going abroad in a few weeks’ time, and beyond the trauma of the disruption to my routine that travelling inevitably causes, I’m really worried about the sensory issues – cars, airports, public transport generally… the list goes on and on. I’ll definitely look in to those alpha/theta waves for my mp3 player and maybe some sort of cool pack/eye mask. I just find I get nauseous when I can’t see where I’m going; but when I can see I get overloaded. Argh! At least I’m not alone :)

    • xuesheng said

      I often find that heat makes everything much more difficult to process, too. I had to live in a hot, polluted city for a couple of months recently, and I found that carrying an umbrella to block the sun helped a lot. (It also means that you can avoid looking at your surroundings if there’s a lot going on, for example when walking down the street, while still seeing what’s in front of you- it’s a bit like having blinkers). Another thing that helps is having a spritzer full of water to cool down with.
      For public transport (in this case the very crowded Beijing metro), I used to take a book that I could hold in front of my face, and wear earplugs. No good if you need to work out where you’re going though…

      Oh, I wrote this before looking at the date of your post. Sorry, this isn’t very helpful six months after your holiday!

  11. L said

    Really, really interesting. Thanks for the great strategies that you use. I love that your blog is focused on solutions and not on the fact of AS being something so horrible or being such a disability like many, many other blogs out there are. Yours is my favourite blog I’ve found. Loved the parts about the waves – theta waves sound really interesting! I will have to give them a try! Never would have heard of them if it weren’t for you, thank you!!

  12. Carly said

    Hello! I’m a 30yo female with diagnosed Aspergers who struggles with sensory overload at night of all things. My mind becomes flooded with ideas and I can’t sleep. The more I try to slow my brain and relax the harder my brain works on organising, planning, analyzing etc.It doesn’t seem quite as bad during the day, but as soon as the sun goes down my brain starts whizzing away. I have tried many things and often feel like a toddler who struggles to go down for a nap. My previous partner actually took to patting my head gently to stop me from talking/listing/analyzing/sharing ideas/thinking out loud so that I would actually go to sleep. Of course I can’t tell when others are not interested in what I am discussing so many times people get ‘stuck’ with me.

    My therapist suggested an ‘ideas book’ last year, similar to a dream book, where I would write the thoughts/ideas down in the book so they were out of my head and I could fall asleep. The theory was good, however it didn’t work very well (I now have countless exercise books full of things I want to do and ways to improve on things).

    Do you have any suggestions?

    Thank you in advance
    Carly

    • tagAught said

      Carly,

      I don’t know if my own observations can help you, but it’s worth a try… I have a milder version of the same issue, so I have *some* idea of what you’re dealing with.

      Petting is good. That tends to calm me down. So do hugs and cuddling (YMMV – if you’re touch hypersensitive, this may not be the best suggestion for you).

      Do you have any pets? If so, perhaps try to focus on paying attention to them. I know cuddling my cat(s) has helped a lot over the years. Even just having them on my lap and petting them helps – especially if they’re purring. That really makes a difference!

      Another potential option, if you don’t mind taking supplements, is something called “melatonin”. Depending on where you are, you can probably find it over-the-counter in your local pharmacy (I know in Canada you can). Melatonin is something that Aspies (and, I suspect, most people on the spectrum) tend to be somewhat deficient in. It’s part of the system that regulates our response to the day-night cycle. I’ve had it recommended to me by a naturopath and by my sister, who uses fractional doses on her son to get him to sleep at night. Essentially, it means that our body better recognizes that darkness outside is a signal that we should go to sleep. *shrugs* I don’t know if it will help – I’ve had mixed reactions with it, but I’ve also been suffering nasty side-effects from Effexor every time I’ve taken it, so that might have been part of the problem – but it might very well be worth the try. It *is* mild in its effect in terms of sleepiness, but if you have sensitivities to medication (some on the spectrum do) you might want to try a half-dose or a quarter-dose the first few times, to see what happens.

      Anyway, hope these suggestions might be of some help!

  13. Chris said

    Thanks for your input – all of you. Loud noises are painful for me. I bought myself a pair of head phones used by people at shooting ranges. I use them to block out the loud music at the gym.

    But the sensory overload that concerns me most occurs when I try to watch movies, television, some computer programs, go into crowded busy stores or even uncrowded cluttered stores, art or science museums, sporting events, crowds, florescent lights. I’m not sure I would describe the sensation as “dizzy”. I feel muddled, spaced out, unfocused, exhausted. When I leave the problem situation the feeling stays with me for about half an hour.

    I’ve been experimenting with focusing on something when it hits me instead of shutting my eyes -say a Rubik’s Cube or trying to examine some object at the store. Sometimes I feel the sensation decrease just a bit when I do that. I’ve also noticed that familiarity with a store will help. After years of going into the same place and feeling like I just want to lie down on the floor, I’ll find that I can rush in and get the two items I need and rush out with only a slight buzz. (I’m currently rating the buzz one to five). Same with some computer things – familiarity helps.

    I don’t like the idea of drugs either but is there one that would help? What I would like would be for something I could take prior to a known difficult situation. Maybe I could see a movie beginning to end instead of being wiped out on my way into the theater. :)

  14. tagAught said

    Interesting! I commented back in December about your article on special interests, and have now found the time to read through some of your other posts. This is, I think, an important one.

    I too have issues with noise. My other issues tend to be with light (that’s my main hypersensitivity) and heat. And my parents (whom I live with) don’t entirely understand why I might want to spend the entire day in my room, curled up under a tightly held polar fleece blanket, or sheet, with the lights off (though they *are* getting better about it, I’ll definitely give them that!). (Duvets are too hot for me to tolerate for long. Ironically, as long as my body temperature regulation is okay, polar fleece blankets are just fine.)

    I will definitely look into theta, alpha, and low beta waves; can maybe even recommend them to some friends of mine in the same boat if they work for me. (Or even if they don’t work as well as one might hope….)

    And massages are great; but I really have to go to a massage therapist for them, since the only parts of my body I’m really able to massage are my hands, feet, and bits of my shoulders (which is not enough to deal with the tension built up there). Not to mention I tend to need deep massages.

    I don’t know what Irlen lenses are, but will investigate them. For the moment, I have a set of polarized over-prescription-glasses amber lenses, which I can wear even at night. (My other two options: yellow sunglasses I got through the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, and dark grey lensed sunglasses, don’t work so well at night when I’m driving; for some reason, they cause me to lose depth perception, where the amber polarized ones don’t. *shrugs*)

    In terms of my own strategies… I’m not very good at dealing with overloads, frankly. Basically, I’d curl up in my living space and only go out when I needed to (work or shopping, or Sunday brunch with relatives). I’d have a mess in my space so I was very closed in, although that’s probably more a matter of not thinking to pick up until it *was* a disaster area, at which point it got too big for me to cope with. I’d cuddle my cats – that’s always good. Purring calms one down. I’d read (if I didn’t have too bad a headache, or if I could ignore my headache through concentration on something else). And I’d sleep.

    I want to thank you for this entry, Capriwim; you may have just provided me with more options to expand my own strategies. Thank you! -Trudy

  15. xuesheng said

    I’ve recently been trying to use meditation as a strategy for avoiding overload. The basic idea is that you focus attention more on what’s going on inside the body- for example, on your breathing, or the feeling of your feet on the floor- and not on what’s going on outside. The downside is that it’s no good if you actually need to focus on your surroundings (I tried it walking along the street and felt much calmer, right up until I walked into a lamppost :p). It’s been really useful to me in general, though.

    This is a link to some free guided meditations: http://rodalebooks.s3.amazonaws.com/mindfulness/index.html
    One to four are the ones I use as above. (There’s a book that goes with them, but it said pretty much the same thing as the recordings really).

    At first, I found that the meditation could actually lead to sensory overload- sensations like my heartbeat seemed quite overwhelming when I focused on them. However, this problem went away within about a week of staring to meditate. Unlike with a sensory overload caused by the external environment, you can stop it happening whenever you want just by opening your eyes and focuing on something else.

    Thank you so much again for writing this blog. I’ve really never found any other information about sensory overload, and this has been really helpful to me- both your practical approach, and being able to read about experiences similar to my own.

    Karla’s ASD Page on Facebook does sometimes have posts on the sensory aspects of austim: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Karlas-ASD-Page/155369821204141?ref=ts&fref=ts

  16. Amie said

    Thank you so much for these suggestions. Finally realizing that a lot of my anxiety is rooted in sensory overload – it’s not that I care what people think of me when I’m talking to them (as in social anxiety – I don’t really give a damn about their opinion of me honestly, and I’m not shy), it’s that their voices are hurting me and if there are a lot of people, it causes me to panic… No one else seems to understand. My mom asked me today if I even tried anything to make my anxiety better. I found that very insulting – I try, every day, everything that I know of to try. It’s not easy. I don’t want to feel like this all the time, of course I try. But now this sensory angle might give me some relief. My family jokes that I have supersonic hearing and a dog’s sense of smell and it’s true. I can hear them whispering across the house, and hear the actual words they’re saying, and I can smell things no one else seems to notice (the smallest amount of bleach for example makes me verge on vomiting, cannot tolerate it). Noise explodes my brain, too much light makes me shrivel like a vampire, it hurts my eyes even though I love the feeling of sun on my skin. Can’t tolerate cold, feels like my bones contain ice shards. On the flip side I have sensory input that I LOVE such as warmth, interesting or rough texture (love the feeling of rocks and wood floors) or smells that I like, and maybe focusing on those positive sensations might help. Had not heard of using theta waves, interesting idea.

  17. Carolyn said

    This has been great to read to help me understand what my Gunter ay be experiencing. She s severely disable and non verbal and as severe sensory processing disorder. She lives being in water and your post has given me a reason why. She is bad with all sound especially voices and has strange reaction to many visuals too especially bright light reflecting on things. Tv and computer screens are her bad as does visually busy environments. She is much worse when not slept well and the less sleep she gets the less she’s able to sleep. (She’s is on huge amounts if melatonin which works but doesn’t keep her asleep. Please please could you find me some links to the track you are referring too for the waves that help. I’m desperate to help her x
    CJ

  18. Carolyn said

    That should have said daughter may not Gunter ay

  19. Mary said

    This really helped me! I have sensory overload issues. I fell down 2 days ago. I slipped on the ice. The muscle stiffness and ache after my fall acts as another “input.” I had a friend over to visit who has to have the TV on blatting away all the time. I had to send him home! I think he is upset with me. He will just have to get over it! I experience sound as “invading” me and can not rest and relax with constant racket in the background.

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