Sunday, November 1, 2015

Sensory Overload: A Survivor's Story

Today, I'd like to take a break from the political and activist sides of this blog and focus on something more practical. I'm sure we are all quite familiar right now with the stereotype that autistic individuals lack empathy and appear detached from their environment in any but the most specific (and often ritualized) ways. While there is no denying that this may appear to and even be true for some, I would like to share today my own personal experience in this regard. You see, far from lacking empathy and attachment, I have found that quite the opposite is true. In fact, I would argue that those of us on the spectrum feel and sense others and the environment TOO MUCH.

I'm going to tell you a story that will hopefully explain this a little better. I've said it before, but I'm a manager at a small Canadian telecom company who works in a retail kiosk environment during my day job. We happen to be the busiest and most profitable store in the company, so naturally such an environment is often stressful and busy. I won't say I have an easy time with that normally as an aspie; the amount of people, the multitasking and constant demands on my attention tend to get to me fairly easily, but after long enough working in people-oriented jobs, I've developed coping mechanisms for it. The other day, however, pushed the limits of my tolerance. We were crazy non-stop busy, the customers were getting grumpy from waiting in line, we were short staffed and I had to accommodate breaks for my team, and to make matters worse, we had received a massive product shipment that I had to work through receiving! My coping mechanisms were pushed to the breaking point and I could feel the spectre of sensory overload setting in. My anxiety was building, and all I wanted to do was turn inward and curl up in a quiet ball with not a sound to be heard. Were it not for the fact that I had to make frequent trips to our back room to sort and put away the already received equipment, I don't know how I would have done it. My stress and anxiety was that crippling.

Now, imagine that level of stress. That “go away world and leave me alone!” level of overwhelming anxiety developing over something as simple as caring too greatly for someone, or being unsure how to respond to the affection of other people, and you start to have a rough idea of what it must be like for those autistics and aspies who are more severely on the spectrum. Simply put, the appearance of emotional detachment doesn't necessarily mean these individuals are emotionally detached; it can be representative of feeling and perceiving the environment in too much detail, and needing to take a step back from it to process things. As another example of this, my sister loves blasting music loudly in the car while either one of us is driving. When it's in my car, however, I find it so grating when she does it! While she may enthusiastically hear her favourite song drowning out her other senses and wrapping her in a familiar melody, I hear each note as a punctured audio nail being driven into my conscious mind with the stabbing and piercing clarity interfering with my thought processes and cognitive ability. It is simply too much!

I'm not going to say that there isn't a certain amount of difficulty understanding emotion inherent in ASD; far from it. I myself have difficulty reading the subtle differences in facial expression between, for example, angry and serious, and it usually takes my brain a split second to register sarcasm, sudden emotional changes, or big, tragic events. Even so, however, I wouldn't call this a lack of empathy. In fact, I can assure you that my empathy for others and capacity for love each run quite deep. If anything, my emotions run hot and strong right beneath the surface of my being. What Neurotypical society interprets as a lack of empathy is really just the obliviousness towards emotional nuance in others' outward reactions that comes with a place on the Autism Spectrum, while the environmental detachment is simply a coping mechanism for the taxing sensory experiences overwhelming our highly attuned nervous systems. In either case, it isn't due to a lack of ability to feel; its that those of us with ASD are so acutely aware and sensitive that even a minor sensory experience such as a scratchy shirt can be pure and utter hell.

All of us, whether Neurotypical or otherwise, experience sensory and emotional overload, and none of us are good at reading every situation perfectly. The key isn't dismissing anyone as being incapable of something because of it; rather, we should be encouraging and teaching methods of coping with the crazy realities of the world. Next time you meet someone who seems to be hiding in their own mental world, remember; it probably isn't because they don't want to come out and talk, they just find every day life overwhelming and need to recharge and re-center themselves. This is all part of learning how to speak the languages of other neurotribes, and it is something which must happen if we are to move forward as a species.

As always, yours in diversity,

Adam Michael

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