Self advocate Jordan Aukema shines some light on the often times overwhelming experience of sensory overload and strategies on how to cope by detailing his own encounters with this challenging phenomenon. This was originally published on The Mighty.
When you hear “sensory overload,” what do you think? Most would think a loud room with lights and things rubbing against them, or another form of “a lot of things at once,” right? I want to tell you there is a another form of sensory overload that often gets left out.
It’s actually the same concept as having a class lecture go on too long. The brain tires out, and its capacity for processing sensory information like sound (talking to others), sight (looking at pictures and videos), and so forth goes down. Sometimes I’ll be talking to a friend on a complex subject for an hour, but then my brain tires out and I have to either start to tune him out (even if the subject has become simple) or my brain will give out.
A good example of this is trying to run. You start out well, lots of stamina, right? But immediately, you know you should pace yourself. Why? Because you have a long way to go. You can take the occasional pit-stop to catch your breath, but you have to keep going. Now imagine you begin to wear out. Maybe you forgot to take that last pit-stop, or you’re pushing yourself too hard, or you chose a route that’s a bit harder than you usually run, or you are just running out of energy. However it happened, you have to stop running for a while. For some reason though, you decide to keep running. Sure enough you collapse, gasping for breath because you pushed yourself too hard. This can also happen if you run too much too hard all at once, but rarely do people associate it with just running out of stamina.
This is what happens with the second form of sensory overload. Our “mental stamina” just wears out. That means we collapse, mentally. Most people associate this with having too much sensory stuff at once, but after a long day of processing school, maybe some work, conversations with friends, and the journey from the house to all these spots, we can simply wear out.
So what do you do then? How do you pace yourself so you can make it through the day? One way I’ve found is to simply shorten the workload, make the day itself easier to handle by putting extra supports in place. Another way is to simply take breaks. Listening to music you’ve heard dozens of times, taking a nap, re-watching something by yourself, or just sitting still for a while are all examples of taking mental breaks. This helps restore your mental “stamina” a bit so you can keep going.
Some days can be tougher than others, for multiple reasons. Maybe you have something on your mind that you’ve been “reprocessing” over and over for the past few days. Maybe you got a bad night’s sleep. Maybe you pushed too hard yesterday and need to compensate. Whatever the reason, some days are harder than others. We just need to respect that.
About the Author
Jordan Aukema was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at a young age and, despite facing adversity in his grade-school years, became a part of a support program while in high school. He is now studying at Fanshawe College and has been able to find a strong support system within his group of friends.