How I experience and manage sensory overload
As someone who was born in Perth, spent four years living in regional Western Australia, and then moved to regional Victoria (where I’ve lived for the last 2 ½ years), coming to Melbourne can be really overwhelming for my sensory processing. Navigating through all the foot, road and public transport traffic can be really challenging. That’s not including bright lights, loud music, strong smells and other sensory inputs.
Recently, on my way to the Amaze office, I took the train via Melbourne Central. It was somewhat early (8am) and as I joined the hordes of people scrambling on the escalators I tried to prepare myself for the sensory onslaught I expected to face on the ground level. Turns out I prepared myself for the wrong kind of onslaught.
As I approached the main open “foyer” area of Melbourne Central – I say foyer because it’s the best words I can find to describe it – there was something lacking. Bright lights, people rushing in all directions. But no noises!! I mean, all I could hear were footsteps and the occasional conversation in the background. Yet the environment had no “artificial sound”. No music. No people with microphones enticing customers into the stores. No checkout scanners either. Just the sound of humans moving.
I really enjoy ‘natural sounds”. Before you say it, I know, shoe sounds aren’t natural. However, people moving and interacting with each other is. I also tend to associate any kind of outside noise as being natural, e.g. traffic, animals, and people. I tend to struggle with inside noises, but I quite enjoy finding somewhere outside to sit and relax while listening to all the outside sounds in the distance.
How I manage sensory overloads
It’s always a hard question to answer. It really depends on the day, how stressed I am, and overall how sensitive I feel to the world around me at any given moment. There are days where the slightest changes in lights or sounds are too nerve-wracking for me to feel comfortable leaving home, let alone function at a required level in busy society. Then there’s the days where noise and lights don’t affect me at all. I usually try to carry what I call my “sensory items” with me at all times though.
- Headphones – at the moment I have a pair of Apple AirPods, and no this isn’t a product placement – they sit in the little case and charge when I’m not using them, and I really like that they don’t have any cables. They also sit comfortably in my ears and don’t fall out – something that I was worried about before purchasing them. If I’m flying I also carry a pair of noise cancelling over-ear headphones, to block out more of the outside noises. Headphones are good as long as an individual doesn’t mind the different sensory experience from wearing them.
- Sunglasses – my sunglasses have the strongest tint legally available in Australia (85%!). They also have all the reflective and UV coatings too. Quite often I’ll wear them inside when I’m shopping to reduce glare from the bright shop lights. My latest pair also have a bronze mirror tint which makes me look like a gangsta, although I don’t know if that’s a good thing!
- Tangle – I have a purple, metallic Tangle. I like keeping my hands busy, especially when I’m anxious or stressed, and a Tangle is great for that! Below is a picture of me playing with my Tangle while writing this blog!
- Deodorant – not something you would think helps manage sensory overload, right? There’s a couple of key reasons here. First, if there’s a strong smell I’m struggling with, I can try to limit its effect by spraying a smell I’m comfortable with in my immediate vicinity. Second, when I’m really stressed or anxious I sweat a lot, this is especially the case in summer, so managing my own body smells is important too!
- Chewies / Chewing Gum – sometimes chewing on something can help me relax. I am more of a Mentos than standard chewing gum kind of person though.
- Water – always carry a bottle of water. I’m more likely to get dehydrated when I’m really stressed or anxious, so keeping fluids up/water intake is really important.
This article was written by Amaze employee Joel Wilson. Joel is an autistic adult in his 30’s. He has done advocacy and consultancy work for a number of autism organisations. Currently, he studies a Communications and Media Studies degree at university and mentoring work with adolescent autistic teenagers.