Subtle Signs of Sensory Overload in an Autistic Person and the Importance of Recognizing Them

In the past, I incorrectly assumed that my sensory overload was too mild to be concerned about it.

I learned more about the problem after reading articles and forums, and watching videos about it.

For some reason, the symptoms of sensory overload are more subtle for me and may look like I’m daydreaming or lacking interest. Maybe it’s because I’m not very expressive.

Since some of those symptoms are experienced by non-autistic people, can overlap with other causes, and may be subtle, they can be misinterpreted.

That’s an example of how two autistic people don’t always have the same symptoms.

This is a problem because instead of experimenting with a sensory friendly environment or other forms of accommodations, the conclusion that the field of work or study wasn’t suitable for the person might be drawn too early when a lack of interest or ability is suspected.

That’s one of the reasons why autism may need to be disclosed to employees even if socializing isn’t expected.

Another concern is the possibility of getting used to sensory overload and not be aware of it.

For example, if the work place is always loud, the autistic person may not have a work day without sensory overload. The person may think that the symptoms are normal or would improve over time, and not ask for accommodations.

The signs that I may have sensory overload include:

  • Staying in a store for too long when purchasing only a few items
  • Responding too slowly
  • Zoning out
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Losing interest
  • Not contributing much in group activities
  • Difficulties using learned skills
  • Forgetfulness
  • Fading of senses

Now I’m experimenting with preventing sensory overload. Hopefully my symptoms would be managed.

I’m trying ear plugs for different noise levels from as quiet as the hum from fluorescent lamps, to conversations and loudspeakers, to light and heavy traffic conditions, to louder environments. If there’s signs of improvements such as being able to stay focused longer, then it suggests that they should be used.

Preventing sensory overload before activities may be needed too because it takes time to recover. That could mean wearing ear plugs while waiting for the bus and riding it, and during lunch in a cafeteria, classroom, or a restaurant. According to Amythest Schaber, recovery can take at least four hours for every hour of shopping or socializing.

If there’s still sensory overload, the protection can be increased by combining ear plugs with earmuffs. Notice that their combined noise reduction ratings are limited to bone conduction.

combine hearing protection.jpg

With hearing protection, it’s important to have the proper balance of removing the triggers while being able to hear the sounds needed for safety such as instructions.

Another way of reducing noise is installing a wind blocker on your helmet straps when biking. This would divert the wind from your ears without blocking important sounds.

I understand that those measures may seem extreme but for autistic people, it may be necessary because they have a hard time filtering sensory information. For those who need discrete hearing protection, they can be ordered online.

Other things that may be possible to try include using a dB meter to measure noise levels, hearing protection that allows hearing conversations, an organized work space, moving to a quieter work space, dividers, and active noise cancellation devices, and comfortable clothing, temperatures, and lighting.

Some articles recommend desensitization, which means getting used to the triggers. It may work for some people but unfortunately, I still suspect sensory overload even though I’ve been exposed to noisy enviroments for a long time.

I can’t guarantee that trying it out would decrease unemployment rates for autistic people or improve their grades because there’s other causes too.

I encourage trying to address sensory overload when the symptoms in autistic people worsen. With five dollars, you can buy a pair of reusable ear plugs, and with 20 to 30 dollars, you can buy a pair of earmuffs.

Update: I found out that NoiseBuster has earmuffs that combines both active and passive noise reduction for around $200. ANR is more effective for low frequency sounds but less effective for higher frequency sounds, making them suitable for engine noises. Since they’re quite expensive, I recommend combining both high NRR ear plugs with high NRR earmuffs, or borrowing it before purchasing it.

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