In my absence from my blog I have had two questions from two different people. I’ll try to answer them as well as I can. Today I’ll answer the second one. You can find the first one here: http://thedailydaysofanasperger.blogspot.nl/2013/05/answering-two-questions-first.html
When can we speak of an ‘overload’?
This is a terribly difficult question, which I have been thinking about for a long time. To me, this question needs two answers. First, I’ll have to define the thin line between simply being bothered by any kind of stimulation and actually having an overload. I’m not an expert, I can’t measure brain activity and I have no idea if my definition of this thin line is the same as someone else’s. So this will just be my interpretation.
The second part of my answer will need to be an actual definition of an overload. This answer has the same problems as the first. I’m not an expert, I can’t measure brain activity and I have no idea if my definition of an overload is the same as someone else’s. So this, too, will just be my interpretation.
Before I answer this, I have a question for my readers too: Does anyone know if there’s some accurate scientific research on this, so we can define this by science instead of just my point of view? If there is a research on this, please send it to me, or tell me where I can find it.
Now, as for the line between simply being bothered by stimulation and having a complete overload. To me, this is defined by the moment where (any kind of) stimulation makes you incapable of tuning it out and bothers you with other activities up to a point where every fibre of your being is telling you to either get rid of the stimulation somehow, or get out of there. When I say stimulation, I mean anything that’s bothering your senses. Being it sound, touch, sight, taste, smell, etc.
The moment where you feel the stimulation affecting your performance with anything, then that might be the first sign of an overload coming up and you should probably search for a way to get away from the stimulation.
Then there’s the second, and hardest, part of the question… A definition of an overload. Now, how do you define something that you feel? It’s like having someone, who never felt hunger, ask how hunger feels. I’ll try my best, though. I’ll try to do it in such a way that even someone who never had an overload, may have a sense of what it’s like. Even though I don’t think anyone will ever really get it without having had an overload. (note: Overloads aren’t just for people with autism. They just tend to have them more often and sooner.)
Ever had 3, or more, people trying to get your attention? You probably couldn’t follow any of it and yelled out, frustrated, something along the lines of: “One at a time please!!!” Such a moment is close to what an overload feels like (and also the reason why some people respond with yelling, or fighting, or things like that, to an overload. It’s frustration).
People with autism are usually a lot more sensitive to different kinds of stimulation. Life with autism is life unfiltered. All the different thing in the world enter our senses at the same time. I remember my biology book telling about how people can get used to a sound. It said: “If you put on a radio on loud while trying to make your homework, it will probably bother you. After a while you’ll probably hardly even hear it anymore.” I can hardly relate with this. Some soft sounds I can filter. But actual music in front of me? Nope.
Now imagine walking through a city and hearing all the sounds (I’m using sound as an example here, but any other sense, like smelling a perfume, can cause the same reaction) around you. You can’t filter anything. There’s people talking, cars driving, footsteps, bicycles, doors slamming, road workers, birds tweeting, mobile phones ringing, bus passes and traffic light sounds, etc.
Now you want to buy a sandwich and you still hear all these things, while you’re trying to politely respond to the salesman who’s selling you something. At the same time a baby in the diner decides it’s a good time to start crying. Now there’s the city sounds, a crying baby and a man talking to you, trying to get your attention all at the same time.
This is the same sensation as having 3, or more, people talking to you at the same time. But you can’t possibly tell the city, the baby and the salesman to ‘Shut up! One at a time!” right? So what do you do? You try to push through and end the conversation and having to be at that place as fast as you can. Then you walk out, while being exhausted, but you’re still in the city, which is already too much. Being exhausted from all the noise, the city is too much too. But you can’t tell the city to shut up either! Now you have to go home sooner than expected… You get on the bus, where you can’t even respond to the bus driver’s nice greeting anymore, as all the city noise is distracting you. Your head starts to hurt and all you want is to get to your nice and quiet home…
I hope this story nicely explained how an overload works. It’s not exactly a scientific way of explaining it. The short of it would be: Slowly but surely you have more and more trouble filtering everything entering your senses. This builds up, until you can’t take no more and start to have the basic ‘fight or flight’ survival response. I think the building up is the first warning signal that things are getting too much and that this signal shouldn’t be ignored. To me the moment that you resort to the ‘fight or flight’ survival response, is the moment where you can say you have an ‘overload’. The key is to recognise the warning signals and reduce the ‘overload-moments’.
You probably think “why couldn’t you just explain the whole thing with these last few sentences?’ Because I feel there’s a difference between knowing something and understanding something. The story might help to really understand the feeling of an overload. I hope it worked.