A feeling of immense distress, a sensory overwhelm / autistic overwhelm is a strong reaction caused by the compounded effects of stress, exhaustion, lack of safety, a sense of danger, unmet needs, too much information, noise, sights or sounds, smells or touch.
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What is autistic overwhelm?
Due to the high number of potential variations in neurodivergence, one’s processing, storage, interpretation, integration and recall of information can all work very differently from the (assumed) neurotypical consensus.
The lower the flexibility and the fewer the accommodations available for someone to conduct their life within these confines, the more distressing it will be just to exist as a neurodivergent person every day.
A neurodivergent person may have:
- a heightened sensitivity to sensory stimuli (lights, sounds, smells, touch)
- lower filtering of stimuli leading to a higher amount of stimuli the brain needs to process at any point in time
- working memory issues affecting short-term and long-term memory storage and recall
- information organisational processes requiring more time and mental energy to integrate new information
- interest-led cognition resulting in variable capacities for self-directing attention and focus
- a lower emotional processing threshold
- a lower stress tolerance threshold
Some traits in this list are commonly associated with autism. Others with ADHD. Some with both. Some crop up in OCD. Some are viewed as temporary in one and ‘there all the time’ in another.
So while it’s common to separate out autistic overwhelm as its own thing, when viewed through a wider neurodivergence framework, ‘neurodivergent overwhelm‘ seems like a more useful moniker.
Why does autistic overwhelm happen?
Overwhelm is not random.
Neurodivergent people can experience overwhelm if their needs are not met and they are not supported properly.
Neurodivergent overwhelm is a result of a combination of neurological effects that can include:
- sensory overload – combination of all sensory stimuli
- information overload – sudden or large changes in plans, environment or circumstance; lack of spatial awareness or temporal perspective; too much information or social interactions to process; uncertainty from memory issues
- social anxiety from communication & social difficulties
- exhaustion – sleep deprivation, masking, prolonged focus
- a lack of perceived safety – can’t keep up with stimuli & information to process
- medical issues – medication side effects, missed doses, co-occurrent conditions, migraines, period pains, vertigo, nausea
Sensory overwhelm can happen more often if you’re already tired or stressed and everything becomes too much – for example in a crowdy place, at a loud concert, or after wearing a new jumper that feels itchy on your skin. It is not a tantrum and you are allowed to remove yourself from the situation to regulate yourself.
Not to be confused with panic attacks and anxiety attacks.
What overwhelm can look like: common outward signs of distress
- shallow breathing
- hunched posture
- muscle tension
- jerky or rigid movements
- staring at a fixed point
- difficulty finding words
- big pauses in speech
- becoming non-verbal
- intensifying repetitive movements
- heightened emotional intensity
- high volume speech
- vocal outbursts (incl. profanities)
- throwing, hitting, or kicking objects
- spitting, pushing, hitting, biting
- self-directed violence (hitting themselves, head-banging, hair-pulling)
- running off
Note that while these lists contain useful indicators, they come with significant caveats.
- Multiple traits indicated in overwhelm appear across neurodivergence, so the presentation of a single trait does not indicate overwhelm on its own. For these traits, the key is the frequency and intensity of the presentation. If you know the person, changes to that person’s own baseline are also good indicators.
- Not only can overwhelm manifest both inwardly and outwardly, but one can precede or shift into the other. This is why autistic overwhelm is often described as if it “came out of nowhere”. But by understanding the interaction of internalised and externalised signs, it becomes clear that ‘bursts’ of externalised signs are many times preceded by a period of internalised signs.
Is this what autistic meltdown is? What is a shutdown?
A final note on wording.
We came up with internalised overwhelm and externalised overwhelm in an attempt to neutralise the language used around autistic overwhelm.
Colloquially and in most online resources, internalised signs of distress are often referred to as ‘implosion’ and ‘shutdown’, and externalised signs as ‘explosion’ and ‘meltdown’.
Some neurodivergent people are okay with calling their own experience a ‘meltdown’ or a ‘shutdown’, but for many, these are labels that only exacerbate their distress, especially given the historical (and incorrect) conflation of overwhelm responses with ‘temper tantrums’.
For this reason, it’s best to avoid using these when referring to a person in distress unless explicitly consented to as okay.
What’s happening in the brain during an overwhelm experience
Decreased access to:
- long-term planning
- evaluating options
- processing complex information
- a sense of time other than ‘now’
- the fight-flight-or-freeze response …leading to the automatic physiological mechanisms that normally activate across the body when a situation is deemed dangerous.
One cause of overwhelm also might be reduced habituation.
A person’s behaviour during an experience of overwhelm is not the same as their intent.
What the experience can feel like: physical pain, complete loss of control, hopelessness, an overload of information, extreme anguish, an overload of all senses, feelings of being in danger.
What the ‘behaviour’ communicates: I am not well. Make it stop.
De-escalation of autistic overwhelm is not a behavioural intervention.
You need to ask yourself:
“How can I help this person in pain?