What Does Overstimulation Feel Like in Autism

Unearth what overstimulation feels like in autism, its impacts, and effective coping strategies.

reuben kesherim
Ruben Kesherim
April 8, 2024

What Does Overstimulation Feel Like in Autism

Understanding Overstimulation in Autism

For individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), the world can sometimes feel overwhelming due to a phenomenon known as overstimulation. Understanding the science behind overstimulation and its sensory implications can be helpful in creating supportive environments for those with autism.

The Science Behind Overstimulation

Overstimulation refers to a state where there is "too much" of some external stimuli for a person's brain to process and integrate effectively. This overload of information can lead to an unpleasant sensation of being flooded and an impulse to escape the stimulus or respond with behaviors such as crying or thrashing about [1]. Overstimulation is a form of pain and can cause near-constant stress for individuals with Asperger Syndrome, a condition on the autism spectrum.

Overstimulation in children with autism can make them feel overwhelmed by situations beyond their control. It's common in those with autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), affecting not only children but also adults, including those with low support needs.

Overstimulation: A Sensory Perspective

From a sensory perspective, overstimulation is linked to sensory processing disorder (SPD). SPDs are conditions in which a person is either over-responsive (sensory hypersensitivity) or under-responsive (sensory hyposensitivity) to environmental stimuli.

Sensory overload, a type of sensory processing disorder, occurs when one or more of the body's senses experiences too much stimulation, causing the brain to receive more information than it can process. This overload can result in feelings of irritability, anxiety, and emotional distress.

Sensory overstimulation can be triggered by hypersensitive senses, making everyday city life a potential source of sensory onslaught for those with autism. Moving vehicles, loud noises, bright sunlight, cigarette smoke, and crowded spaces are just a few examples of stimuli that can cause sensory overstimulation [1].

People with autism often respond to sensory overload with repetitive behaviors known as stimming. These behaviors, which include hand-flapping, rocking, repeating words or phrases, or spinning, can be a coping mechanism to deal with the sensory overload.

Understanding overstimulation from a sensory perspective is crucial in understanding what overstimulation feels like for those with autism. It's an important component in creating more supportive environments and in developing effective coping strategies.

Symptoms of Sensory Overload

The experience of sensory overload in individuals with autism can be manifested in a myriad of ways. These responses can be broadly categorized into physical reactions and emotional responses. Understanding these symptoms can help us empathize with the experience of overstimulation in autism and provide better support.

Physical Reactions to Overstimulation

Sensory overload occurs when the brain gets more information from the senses than it can process. In individuals with autism, this overload can lead to a variety of physical reactions. One common manifestation involves self-harming behaviors such as head banging, ear-clapping, self-scratching, or self-hitting in some cases.

Additionally, autistic individuals often respond to sensory overload with repetitive behaviors known as stimming, which can be distracting and self-soothing. Examples include hand-flapping, rocking, repeating words or phrases, or sitting on the floor and spinning.

Physical Reactions Description
Self-harming behaviors Head banging, ear-clapping, self-scratching, self-hitting
Stimming behaviors Hand-flapping, rocking, repeating words or phrases, sitting on the floor and spinning

Emotional Responses to Overstimulation

Alongside physical reactions, sensory overload can also evoke a range of emotional responses in autistic individuals. This can include symptoms such as irritability, anxiety, and emotional distress [3].

It's important to note that the responses to sensory overload can differ from one situation to the next. For example, a child may respond differently to flickering lights at school than to flickering lights at home. This variability can often make sensory overload seem unpredictable to onlookers [3].

Emotional Reactions Description
Irritability Annoyance, frustration
Anxiety Worry, fear, unease
Emotional distress Upset, agitation, distress

By understanding the range of physical and emotional reactions to sensory overload, we can gain a clearer insight into 'what does overstimulation feel like autism'. Recognizing these signs can pave the way for more effective communication and support strategies.

Overstimulation and Everyday Life

Overstimulation in autism can manifest in many ways and significantly impact an individual's ability to navigate everyday life. From social interactions to everyday tasks, sensory overload can present challenges that require understanding, accommodations, and supportive strategies.

Sensory Overload and Social Interactions

Autistic individuals often have sensory differences, experiencing over- or under-sensitivity in various senses like sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, balance, and body awareness. These sensory differences can profoundly affect how they feel and act, especially in social situations.

For instance, an individual with overstimulation may experience distress due to distortions in vision, such as objects jumping around or fragmented images. Sounds may be magnified and muddled, leading to difficulties in filtering out background noise during conversations. Intense smells could be overwhelming, causing discomfort in environments with strong odors. Sensory differences can vary from hypersensitivity to hyposensitivity in different senses, further complicating social interactions.

These sensory challenges can make social environments stressful and anxiety-inducing, often leading to physical discomfort, withdrawal, distressed behavior, or meltdowns. Thus, understanding and acknowledging these challenges are crucial for fostering inclusive and comfortable social interactions.

Impact of Overstimulation on Daily Activities

The everyday life of autistic individuals can be significantly influenced by sensory overload. Tasks that seem routine or mundane to others can become complex and challenging due to sensory overstimulation.

For example, strong tastes could make eating certain foods difficult, leading to dietary restrictions or preferences. Similarly, a heightened sense of touch could make certain fabrics or textures uncomfortable, influencing clothing choices or aversion to certain activities involving physical touch.

Moreover, challenges with balance and body awareness can impact routine activities like walking, playing sports, or even sitting in a chair. Difficulties sleeping due to sensory disturbances can also affect the ability to maintain a regular sleep-wake cycle, impacting overall health and wellbeing.

To support individuals experiencing sensory overload, strategies often include creating a suitable environment (such as reducing lighting, using earplugs, unscented products), providing sensory-friendly supports, and making adjustments to accommodate their sensory needs in daily activities.

By understanding what overstimulation feels like in autism and the impact it can have on daily life, we can better support autistic individuals in their journey to navigate, interact, and thrive in their environments.

Coping Strategies for Autism Overstimulation

Developing coping strategies in response to overstimulation, a common occurrence in autism, is integral to managing the condition. These strategies can help individuals navigate the sensory challenges they encounter, mitigating the impacts of overstimulation. The following sections will discuss two such strategies: deep breathing and isometric exercises, and the use of sensory tools and fidget toys.

Deep Breathing and Isometric Exercises

Deep breathing is a simple, yet effective stress management tool that can help children with autism calm themselves when they become stressed or overwhelmed. This can be particularly useful during instances of overstimulation, which often lead to an increased heart rate and fast, shallow breathing. Deep breathing techniques can help prevent autistic individuals from holding their breath or hyperventilating during moments of frustration and overwhelm, allowing for calming exercises and clearer thinking.

Isometric exercises, such as squeezing a stress ball, can also be beneficial. These exercises can help children with autism understand relaxation techniques and release tension in their muscles. By engaging in these exercises, they can ultimately achieve a more relaxed state [2].

Use of Sensory Tools and Fidget Toys

The use of sensory tools and fidget toys is another strategy to cope with overstimulation in autism. These tools can assist autistic individuals in focusing on tasks by providing soothing sounds, motions, and tactile experiences. They can help manage stress and maintain attention, which can be particularly challenging during instances of sensory overload [5].

Sensory issues are a common challenge for children with autism, emphasizing the need for strategies to help them avoid sensory overload. Creating a sensory-friendly environment, using visual schedules, providing sensory breaks, and using social stories are beneficial methods to support children with autism.

As we delve into understanding 'what does overstimulation feel like autism', it becomes evident that having effective coping strategies can make a significant difference. Whether it is deep breathing, isometric exercises, or the use of sensory tools and fidget toys, these strategies can provide much-needed relief from overstimulation.

Creating Supportive Environments

Creating supportive environments for individuals with autism is crucial in managing overstimulation. This involves making adjustments to create sensory-friendly spaces and fostering effective communication.

Adjustments for Sensory-Friendly Spaces

Sensory overload in autism is a type of sensory processing disorder, where a person becomes over-responsive to environmental stimuli. It's a state of distress and can lead to behaviors like self-harm, including head banging, ear-clapping, self-scratching, or self-hitting. In order to mitigate this, it's important to create sensory-friendly spaces that can help individuals with autism find comfort and manage stress.

One of the ways to accomplish this is by providing deep pressure through techniques like massages, tactile items, or calming areas. These can assist individuals with autism in releasing muscle tension and finding comfort during moments of stress or overstimulation.

Moreover, engaging in pleasant activities such as favorite hobbies, reading, or drawing can be comforting and calming in stressful situations. Walking outside, especially in nature, can also provide a sense of calm, helping in finishing tasks or lessons in challenging settings.

Fidget toys and sensory tools can also assist individuals with autism in focusing on tasks by providing soothing sounds, motions, and tactile experiences. These tools can help them manage stress and maintain attention.

Importance of Effective Communication

Effective communication is another crucial aspect of creating supportive environments for individuals with autism. It's vital among team members and caregivers to prevent stress and ensure successful calming techniques are put in place.

This includes communicating about the individual's preferences, triggers for overstimulation, and effective strategies that have worked in the past. Regularly updating this information ensures that everyone involved in the care of the individual with autism is on the same page, thereby creating a supportive environment for the individual.

Effective communication also extends to the individual with autism. This could involve discussing what overstimulation feels like for them, and encouraging them to communicate their feelings and needs as best they can. By promoting open and understanding communication, we can better ensure the wellbeing and comfort of individuals with autism.

Case Study: Overstimulation in Different Scenarios

Understanding the nuances of overstimulation in autism requires a closer look at how it manifests in various environments. This section will explore the impact of sensory overload in two common settings: schools and homes.

Sensory Overload in School Settings

In school settings, sensory overload can be a significant challenge for students with autism. An overabundance of stimuli, such as flickering lights, loud noises, crowded hallways, and the smell of various foods in the cafeteria, can overwhelm their senses and lead to sensory overload. This can result in symptoms like irritability, anxiety, and emotional distress.

In some cases, sensory overload can also lead to self-harming behaviors such as head banging, ear-clapping, self-scratching, or self-hitting [3].

However, it is crucial to note that responses to sensory overload can differ from one situation to another. For instance, a child may respond differently to flickering lights at school than to flickering lights at home.

To support students with autism, schools can implement strategies such as reducing lighting, using unscented products, and providing sensory-friendly supports like quiet rooms or fidget toys.

Overstimulation in Home Environments

At home, sensory overload can be triggered by a variety of factors, including bright lights, loud noises, strong smells, and even the texture of clothing or furniture. When faced with these overwhelming stimuli, individuals with autism may experience intense anxiety, stress, and hypersensitivity to their surroundings.

Overstimulation at home can significantly impact an individual's daily life, leading to withdrawal, distressed behavior, or meltdowns. It can also cause physical pain and difficulties with activities due to sensitivities.

To create a more sensory-friendly home environment, adjustments might include using dimmer switches for lighting, noise-cancelling headphones for loud noises, unscented products to reduce strong smells, and soft, comfortable clothing and furniture to reduce tactile discomfort.

Through these case studies, we can see that environments play a critical role in managing overstimulation for individuals with autism. By understanding the potential triggers and implementing appropriate strategies, we can create more supportive environments that cater to their unique sensory needs.


[1]: https://autismspectrumnews.org/four-faces-of-overstimulation/

[2]: https://mycanopy.org/2020/04/over-stimulation-stress/

[3]: https://www.verywellhealth.com/autism-and-sensory-overload-259892

[4]: https://www.autism.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/topics/sensory-differences/sensory-differences/all-audiences

[5]: https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/coping-skills-reducing-overwhelm/

[6]: https://www.crossrivertherapy.com/autism/sensory-overload