When should sensory overload be suspected in an autistic person when its signs are subtle? (Opinion)

If you’re aware of sensory overload, you’ll know when when you need to prevent it.

When sensory overload is suspected, the person can experiment with ways of preventing it such as using hearing protection.

I’ve started trying hearing protection in noisy places. I feel that it’s beneficial. I often feel the need for dual protection. Disposable earplugs seem to be better than reusable ones when there’s vibrations. Sometimes I need to alternate earmuffs and ear plugs because my ears and face get sore. I also tried Airstremz for cycling to reduce the wind noise.


According to one of Willow Hope’s video, it’s possible to be affected by quiet sources of sounds. With autism, background sounds can seem as loud as foreground sounds.

That’s why I think awareness is important even when it’s subtle, when the person thinks he’s used to loud places, or when the person is considered high functioning. We shouldn’t rule out the possibility of sensory overload just because we don’t see severe symptoms.

Since some people’s symptoms are more subtle, I recommend experimenting with hearing protection even for sounds that we don’t notice such as cafeterias, classrooms, restaurants, electrical hums, fans, ventilation systems, heaters, computers, washing machines, running water, conversations, TV’s, radios, wind, and refrigerators.

If they’re subtle or the baseline symptoms are forgotten, you might not be able to detect it by asking question such as “is the place too loud?”, or “how are you feeling?”.

The symptoms to look for include:

  • Impaired short term memory. The autistic person may find it harder to remember even short lists of items. This can make it easy to lose things. For example, forgetting to take the items you bought at a store. For some tasks, there may be a need to take notes when other people don’t do it. Playing a dual N-back game can test the person’s short term memory. At baseline, the person may be able to play a higher level than with sensory overload. The game can be downloaded on smartphones.
  • Things feel unreal like in a dream.
  • Senses fade which can make sounds seem faint. Listening to a ring tone may detect it. If it feels easy to miss it, there’s probably sensory overload
  • Decreased productivity. If other students or co-workers work faster than the autistic person, sensory overload prevention should be experimented. If his performance improves, there was probably sensory overload. This may be mistaken as a lack of skills or an inability to learn.
  • Slower reaction times. The person may longer to respond to questions or miss it.
  • Fidgeting. It’s possible for the person to suppress it when they’re aware of it because of the need to look non-autistic.
  • Loss of interest.
  • The need to recover.

Once sensory overload is suspected, it’s time to avoid it.

From the symptoms above, you may see why it’s hard to detect sensory overload in some people. The autistic person may be used to the symptoms and observers may misinterpret them.

It’s hard for me to tell if a place is too loud maybe because I have difficulty judging the volume of the environment. That’s why I need to be reminded to change the volume of my voice when the environment becomes louder or softer.

I notice that some people smile when they see me with earmuffs.

This is an opinion. I’m still experimenting with preventing overload.

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.

Importance of High Functioning Autism Awareness for Employment

The term “high functioning” autism may make the condition sound like it’s not so hard to for the person to get a job. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case and their skills are wasted.

It’s very easy to overlook the fact that they need help in finding a job when they’re good at acting non-autistic, they have the skills for the job, or they have good grades.

Even though I only have HFA, I still have areas that I struggle with. That’s why I think we need autism awareness whether we’re “high” or “low” functioning.

My struggles include:

  • Job interviews
  • Socializing
  • Sensory overload
  • Describing emotions
  • Expressing emotions
  • Using incorrect facial expressions
  • Processing social cues
  • Volume control and tone of voice
  • Not knowing what the written rules for socializing are
  • Taking things literally
  • Difficulty understanding sarcasm
  • Misunderstanding instructions especially if they’re spoken instead of written
  • Restricted interests
  • Recognizing faces

The national unemployment rate in Canada is only 6.6% as of February 2017. Here’s a chart of the unemployment rates in Canada by province and territory.

unemployment rate.png

Source: Wikipedia

Depending on which studies you read, for autistic people, their unemployment rates can be 85%! That’s not a typo. It’s 85% not 8.5%. Unfortunately, those with HFA are similarly affected. That’s why I think they need as much help. This article also lists other struggles besides employment, and has myths and facts about HFA.

From the symptoms mentioned above, you may have a better idea why it’s so hard for them to do well in job interviews or keep a job.

When a person partially shuts down from sensory overload, it can be mistaken for lacking interest if they become quiet or refuses to participate, or lacking the skills if they have difficulty performing. You can learn more about sensory overload from videos, forums, and other articles.

I think shutting down from sensory overload can also make us unaware of our condition and make it more difficult to avoid the situation. I tend to overestimate my ability to tolerate sensory overload. That’s why I think we should be aware of it and be prepared. I’m now bringing ear plugs more often when I go out.

Sources of excessive noise that can cause sensory overload at work include music, dining areas, crowds, appliances, vehicles, and phone calls.

Since autistic people may have a hard time sensing the volume of their voice, they might not notice the need to raise their volume when it gets louder. They might speak too loud in a quiet place or too quiet in a loud place.

Difficulties with the unwritten rules and expressing emotions can affect our first impressions. For example, if we want to share our interests, how do we know when it’s too much information. I feel the need to experiment.

Since it’s hard for autistic people to pass job interviews, I think we should share our skills and hobbies online, have networks, share autism awareness articles, and try to get support. It may benefit us if we pursue a diagnosis.

Thankfully, there’s employment services for people with disabilities. Some companies actually hire autistic people because of their strengths. I’m hoping that their employment rates would significantly increase in the future.

This article only focuses on employment. There’s other areas of concern as well.

Possible Need for Ear Plugs for an Autistic Person

Ear plugs may benefit autistic people because they may prevent sensory overload.

After watching a video saying that addressing sensory issues may benefit socializing, I’m considering giving ear plugs a try when there’s too much noise even if it isn’t over 85 decibels.

Noisy environments include:

  • Cafeterias
  • Restaurants
  • Roads
  • Vehicles
  • Homes

I might be sensitive to noise because at high levels because it seems to cause me to zone out and look like day dreaming. With sensory overload, other sounds and sensory information can become faint enough that I won’t notice that I dropped some coins even though other people heard it.

It’s probably not a coincidence that preparing a shopping list at a store, deciding what to order at a restaurant, and studying in a cafeteria are much more difficult than when done at home. There’s probably too much information from other senses as well.

I hope that resolving sensory issues can improve socializing, mental capacity and endurance, and productivity.

If they’re effective, I might look for other features such as invisibility, noise cancellation, musician grade, high fidelity, volume control, reusability, and custom fit for long term use.

Importance of Clear Instructions for an Autistic Person (Car Wash Example)

Here’s an example of why clear instructions can be important for an autistic person. I’m using car wash as an example because I’ve hand washed them before.

If I’m told to do a good job washing a car, I might spend too much time removing tough stains and cleaning hard to see or reach areas, spending unrealistic amounts of work and time to get the job done.

Instead of making sure that the wheels of the car look clean, I might make sure that the water from wringing out the used towel can’t look any cleaner.

Instead of just spraying the top of a tall vehicle, or a vehicle’s bottom edge or crevices with water and removing only the obvious stains, I might go as far as carefully wiping it with a towel, and wiping it dry until it’s hard to see the stains close up.

If there’s areas difficult to reach with a vacuum cleaner’s hose such as under car seats, I might adjust them for vacuuming rather than just remove objects underneath by hand even though I’ve already done it recently.

If I feel that I missed some areas, I might go back and carefully look for hard to find stains rather than see the whole car as a clean car.

You can see problems with this.

One of the reasons I feel the need to tell others that I’m autistic is that clear instructions are necessary, it’s easy to be distracted by irrelevant details, I take things literally, and have difficulties reading non-verbal social cues which may be used as feedback.

The earlier clear instructions are given, the better.

It’s a little clearer to say “make sure that the car looks clean” or say “you don’t need to clean where it’s hard to see” rather than saying “make sure that you do a very good job” because I have a better idea of where to focus. I’m more likely to see the car like their friends see it.

I can misinterpret “do a better job”, as pay even more attention to details rather than do what’s relevant.

If told to work faster, I might scrub even harder or faster.

Questions to ask might be “does the car look clean?” while standing at a distance from the car.

Things that I might try include: watch people do the work, read articles about it, watch videos about it, ask for feedback, and ask questions about what’s needed to be done.

To avoid repeating the same mistakes, I’ll have to remember not to thoroughly clean difficult to see areas for my next car wash.

It’s possible that other autistic people have more or less difficulty in this area. They can be affected in different ways.

Other areas that benefit from clear instructions may include:

  • Jobs
  • Homework
  • Lab work
  • Chores
  • Socializing
  • Social cues
  • How much is too much or too little when expressing emotions?
  • Gift giving
  • How much time to spend with friends
  • Conversations
  • How much details to give when telling others about yourself or your interests
  • How to have eye contact without staring because eye contact is considered important
  • Other rules for socializing


Social Cues List

As someone with autism, I understand that socializing can be difficult for those on the spectrum which is why I created a list of social cues.

Only 7% of communication is spoken words.
  • Eye blinking
  • Eye contact
  • Movement of eyes
  • Pupil size
  • Tear production
  • Saliva production
  • Facial expression
  • Gesture
  • Fidgeting
  • Posture
  • Walking style
  • Travelling speed
  • Content of conversations
  • Framing in conversations
  • Volume of voice
  • Tone of voice
  • Rate of speech
  • Perspiration
  • Skin temperature
  • Changes in skin tone
  • Appetite
  • Thirst
  • Interests
  • Alertness
  • Respiratory rate
  • Respiratory depth
  • Swallowing
  • Distance
  • Personal space
  • Pace of work
  • Energy levels
  • Jewelries
  • Sunglasses
  • Headphones
  • Hair
  • Clothing

I tend to rely more on spoken words and overlook the social cues especially if they’re subtle.

It’s possible to learn the cues by studying them. Even then, socializing can still be challenging.

What do you think?


13 Interesting Facts about Autism

Here are 13 interesting facts about autism. Some of them may be contrary to what we thought.