Sensory or emotional overload

What is overload
IN BRIEF

When the senses receive too much information at the same time, and are no longer able to keep themselves organized, an autistic person can feel very unwell, and this is called sensory overload. If it's the emotions that receive too much information, or if the emotions arrive too quickly or by surprise and the person finds themselves overwhelmed by the situation, this is called emotional overload. Sometimes both types of overload arrive at the same time, adding to the challenge. In any case, it's an overload that the brain must take time to manage.

Sensory overload

Sensory overload is when there’s too much information coming from the senses, and the brain can no longer coordinate. To perceive, the body sends information to the brain. To understand and make sense of the world around us, the brain must translate the body’s information into sensations, and then send the sensory information to other sections to make sense of it. This requires an enormous amount of coordination.

The double task of sorting

In addition to sensations coming from the environment, from outside the body, from the organs and senses, the brain must also understand other information coming from within, such as emotions, intentions and mood. Again, this requires a great deal of coordination.

Emotional overload

Emotional overload is when there’s too much information coming from the emotions, and the brain can no longer sort it out. Sometimes it’s because there have been too many emotions, or too much variety in the emotions, or even an emotion that would not normally have been intense, but which has arrived suddenly.

Attention

Emotional overload can amplify sensory overload, and vice versa.

Scenario

Aiden has been playing outside and has felt too hot all day. When he comes inside, the noise of the ventilation system assaults him, making his skin feel cold and his sweater feel damp and sticky. He's not quite aware of this, as he's busy following his friends inside. When his classmate criticizes him for pushing him around, Aiden explodes with anger. Normally, he might have been able to react more calmly, but due to the accumulation of pressures, receiving a negative emotion was too much for him in that moment.

As they get older, autistic people can learn to better identify the signals that warn them of emotional overload. This can vary from person to person. Here are a few examples.

Further information

There's a difference between an emotion and a mood. Emotion is what we feel in the present moment following an event that has just happened or that we've just been thinking about. Emotions can change from moment to moment as events unfold. Mood is the backdrop to emotion. It's a bit like an emotion, but less intense and lasting longer. Mood changes the way we perceive events. When we're in a bad mood, we may feel angry about a comment that wasn't negative.

How does sensory or emotional overload feel?

For autistic people, it feels like too much. For some autistic people, sensations become aggressive, even painful or frightening. For others, they create confusion. It becomes difficult to move the body. Simply knowing how to position oneself and react to sensations becomes difficult.

Some of the sensations we feel in our bodies stem from our emotions. In addition, sensory or emotional overload can lead to emotions being added to those already present. In a moment of overload, an autistic person may feel stress, fear, frustration or sadness. These emotions can cause sensations such as a stomach ache or teary eyes. Sometimes, it’s the emotions themselves that cause the overload.

This can become very intense as the emotions caused by experiencing an overload mix with the emotions that triggered the overload in the first place. And all these emotions create bodily sensations as well.

Overload in a social context

Contrary to popular belief, autistic people are capable of understanding social relationships. Their way of relating is simply different. Like all humans, sometimes being in a relationship with others leads to experiencing a variety of emotions. They can be both positive and negative. And emotions can trigger sensory overload, even if they are positive emotions. This happens more often to autistic people, but it can happen to non-autistic people too. It’s easy to find videos of people who can’t control their tears after receiving good news from those around them. These people are happy, but their brains are experiencing a form of emotional overload!

Situational overload

There may also be an important event that causes overload. For example, receiving a surprise is an important event that can lead to overload. Sometimes, autistic people experience overload because of an event that is important to them, but doesn’t seem important to others. It could be a change in routine, an unexpected situation, a problem to be solved, an inexplicable sensation, etc. Mood can play a role in the sensory overload associated with emotions. If several negative events have occurred in a short space of time, this can put you in a bad mood. If an important event occurs, a bad mood can increase the chances of experiencing unpleasant sensations due to emotions such as sadness, anger or frustration.

Understanding by example

A person with autism may be experiencing sensory overload because their favorite box of cookies isn’t in the same cupboard as usual. This event may seem trivial to others, but it’s important to the person. Autistic people use routines to regulate their senses. This helps them stay coordinated. If the box isn’t in the same place, the autistic person has to step out of their routine and find other strategies to achieve their feeding and comforting goal. The feeding goal might be being used to manage the sensations of hunger. The comfort goal might be being used to focus on pleasant sensations in order to recover from unpleasant ones. The sensation of hunger, and the memory of unpleasant sensations, can already require an effort of coordination for the person’s brain. With the box of cookies gone, an entire strategy for recovering from a nearly overwhelming ensemble of sensations has disappeared. That’s why the missing cookie tin becomes an important event.

The consequences

Sensory overloads are felt in the body and trigger emotions. When the overload is too great, it can lead to meltdown or shutdown. In both cases, the autistic person will have difficulty communicating, and may even be unable to do so. In both cases, the autistic person experiences an explosion of emotions and sensations. In the case of a meltdown, the explosion will be visible to the outside world through behaviors expressing frustration, anger or sadness. In the case of a shutdown, the explosion will be experienced from within. Others will be able to see that the autistic person in this situation is no longer communicating, is no longer able to move or is limited in their movements, and does not respond to their name.

When I lived with a roommate, it often happened that someone ate what I had planned to eat. Most of the time, it was okay since we did the grocery shopping as a group, so they were allowed to and I was okay with it. But sometimes, it was the thing I'd planned to eat on the way home from work, or after a big activity. In those days, my roommates knew they had to help me feed myself by choosing something for me. Otherwise, I'd fall apart. Not cry or scream, because I was an adult. I was just going to be on the couch, not talking, not moving, not eating, not even doing something useless like scrolling on Facebook without really reading. Nothing. Nothing at all, for an hour or two. I was turned off.

Avoiding overload

The autistic person experiencing overload can try techniques to reduce the amount of sensations they are receiving, such as by moving to a different room or putting on noise-cancelling headphones. It’s important to remember that sensory overload means the brain has trouble coordinating its parts to understand what’s going on. Lack of coordination also makes it difficult to move and make decisions. Moving also makes you feel sensations! So, if an autistic person realizes they’re overloaded when it’s too late to avoid a meltdown or shutdown, that’s normal. So sometimes, even with the best of tricks, it can happen that you realize that a sensory overload has occurred too late to be able to reduce it. However, it is possible to learn from overload situations to see them coming before they start.

Catherine Bouchard-Tremblay

Science popularizer

Valérie Jessica Laporte

Autism writer and content creator (French)