Imagine a what sensory overload would be like.
You step out of the car, the pavement seems hotter than usual and the bitchumen is uneven, sticking up into the soles of your shoes, pressing in sharply. It hurts. You walk quickly into the building so as to avoid the heat pummeling up through your legs. Inside, the lights above have double, maybe triple voltage, the fluorescent glare shocks you when you first enter and you feel startled, assaulted, like a deer in the headlights.
Someone to your left, a little boy opens a bag of potato chips but he is doing it so noisily!! The foil is grating and crackling like he has a megaphone attached to the packet and every bite and crunch magnifies inside your head.
Scrap that, it’s like the sound is in fact, inside your head, not meters away.
There’s a creepy clown up ahead selling helium balloons in every hyper-color of the rainbow, the glitter balloons reflect the fluorescent lights straight back into your eyes, and he is repetitively shouting in a high- pitched helium induced voice: Welcome to Sunland, Weeelcomeeee! You start breathing heavily, panicked by all the stimulation, but the more you breathe in, the more you can smell the cheap perfume of the grandma sitting on the bench near you, a cheap, choking perfume with heady orange top notes. You need a distraction. Every single, tiny sound is amplified, every scent accosts your noise, every sight bombards you all at once in blinding colours- it’s like a nightmare dream-sequence straight out of a Tim Burton film. But you’re not in a Tim Burton film; you are in a simple suburban shopping mall. You’re 5 and your mum is holding your hand the whole time. And you are utterly, utterly overwhelmed.
If you are neuro-typical, you might read this and find it difficult to get your head around. It’s only a shopping centre after all! There’s a shopping mall clown selling balloons to the children, a grandmother sitting quietly with her trolley of groceries and another child snacking on crisps. Nothing out of the ordinary. But if you are a-typical and on the autism spectrum, this is exactly what it feels like to do the ordinary. A simple trip to do the groceries becomes an unimaginable offense. You are given so much sensory information to take in all at once, because for those with autism, every sense is heightened. You’re brain has all its tabs open all at once, and no way to turn some of them off. It must be exhausting.
The National Autistic Society tried to capture this overload for us with their 2016 campaign ‘Can you make it to the end? 8 seconds in, we were exhausted! Watch it for yourself; it’s a terrific way of elucidating the sensory overload our children experience with the condition of autism. And hopefully, with elucidation, comes compassion.
If we had even a portion of understanding of what it’s like to live with this condition, we wouldn’t be so quick to judge and condemn, which unfortunately happens all too frequently. There are countless stories from the parents of autistic children who have been confronted in disgust in a public space, reprimanded for not keeping their kid in line. Here are just a few things parents have been told when their child starts reacting in anguish, when they are simply overwhelmed and over-stimulated in a public space.
“ Your kid is a brat, smack him, it’s the only way he’ll learn.”
(under their breath) “Some people just shouldn’t be parents.”
“ For godssake, get your child under control, this is a public space!”
“ If my kids acted like that, I wouldn’t take them out of the house…but my kids would never act like that.”
Eye rolls, sneers, subtle and not so subtle shakes of the head. It’s unending. What’s astounding is how little understanding and compassion we have for people. And just perhaps, educating people on what it’s really like to live with this condition can help cultivate more understanding, more empathy and more compassion. Rather than judging our fellow parents or strangers and their parenting styles, wouldn’t it be great if we could give a little support. “You’re doing great, it’s tough.” Or how about, “Can I be of any
assistance?”. Sentences any parent would love to hear every now and again.
Sensory overload is just one of many symptoms a child with autism contends with, and the one that is possibly the least understood.
When children are born, we usually think that we will need to teach them all about the world. With a child with autism, it’s the reverse: We need to teach the world about our child! And in doing so, perhaps, just perhaps, we can educate the world enough to have compassion and understanding, rather than judgment. And that’s the topsy-turvy kinda world we’d all like.