Sensory Overload in Autism


The typically-developing brain that doesn’t have autism enjoys the comfort that a brain filter provides. A brain filter is like a colander or strainer that sits over the brain and protects it from becoming too over-whelmed. Every piece of information that comes into the body through the senses (everything we can hear, see, feel, taste and smell) is filtered before it reaches the conscious brain. This means that some information never reaches consciousness and we never become aware of it. The brain’s filter system checks the relevance of each bit of information, based on past experience and your innate curiosity or personality, and blocks out the irrelevant stuff. Close your eyes for a second and tell me the colour of the wall behind you. Open your eyes and check if you were right. If you are in an unfamiliar environment you may not have noticed the colour of the walls because the brain didn’t find it interesting or important to your safety. Take a second now to ground yourself and notice your environment. Check out what you have missed when you were using your efficient filtering system. Take a deep breath and see if you can smell anything. Bring your awareness to your body and check if you can feel where your clothes are touching your skin. Check where your toes are. Now give them a wriggle. You probably didn’t notice where they were until you moved them. Open up your awareness wider and check if you can hear noises outside the room, cars or birds, rain or wind.

Someone with autism doesn’t have this efficient filtering system. Their body will be sending them signals constantly about the environment, relevant or not. They may have the ability to experience the environment so much more than you do. This can be a wonderful skill to have. It can also be extremely over-whelming.

When you engage in conversation, the brain puts priority on this task and blocks out all of the environmental conditions that are not important to the task. You may be interrupted by your brain finding something curious or dangerous in your environment but mostly you are left to engage in talking to the other person while your brain does the hard work of blocking out all other incoming information.

Someone with autism must juggle the task of conversation while the incoming signals continue to fight for their conscious attention. The fluoro lights will be flickering in their eyes and buzzing in their ears. You will not have noticed these things. They will hear cars driving passed outside when you haven’t noticed the noise. Their clothes may be itching them. Their jumper strangling their neck, socks suffocating their feet. If you checked right now, you could find a part of your body that is uncomfortable or itchy and you could adjust your clothes once you were aware, but you mostly you wouldn’t be aware of these sensations. Where you would only notice talking coming out of the other person’s mouth, they would hear the subtle noise people make in the back of their throat, the other person’s breathing and their own. If the person changed facial expressions half way through the conversation, this information would need to be added to the input coming in whereas you would automatically process this information without being consciously aware you were doing it.

You never really know someone else’s experience…

Become aware and accept

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