17-year-old autistic author Siena Castellon describes the mitigating steps she follows.
Sensory overloads are one of the most challenging aspects about being autistic. Our heightened senses and inability to filter sensory information can negatively affect our physical and emotional wellbeing. Sensory overloads can also cause meltdowns and shutdowns. Unfortunately since most people don’t experience sensory overloads, they can’t fully understand how distressing, overwhelming and painful they can be. Although our sensory issues will never go away, there are ways to manage and reduce your sensory sensitivities that can significantly improve your daily life.
Below are some suggestions:
- Communicate – Don’t assume that people who are not autistic experience sensory input the way that you do. When I was younger, I made the mistake of assuming that others experience the world in the same way I do. They don’t. It’s up to you to spell it out to them. Make sure that you communicate as much information as you can about your sensory sensitivities. Be very specific. The more information you provide to those around you, the better their understanding will be of your sensory triggers and how they affect you. Once they’re aware of your sensory triggers, they’ll be in a much better position to support you and help you to manage and if possible, avoid them.
- Sensory Survival Kit – One of the most effective ways of managing sensory overloads is to create a sensory survival kit that is customised to your specific needs. In my sensory survival kit, I always have a noise-cancelling headset. I find that listening to music is the best way to survive sensory intolerances. I also have several roll-on aromatherapy oils to neutralize nasty smells. I particularly like lavender and ginger. I roll the oil on to my nose to block out unpleasant smells. I have Tiger Balm to rub on my skin in case someone accidentally bumps into me. I find the menthol cools, tingles and soothes the area. I always have two pocket- sized tissue packets, which I place in the two back pockets of my jeans so that I can create a seat cushion when I am sitting in an uncomfortable chair for a long time. I have wet wipes, because I hate getting sticky and powdery substances on my hands. I have a menthol lip balm, because I dislike the sensation of having dry lips. I also have extra hair bands, which I can discreetly use to fidget with when I get distressed. I am always adapting my survival kit for different situations. For example, I change my survival kit to adapt to seasonal changes and for air travel.
Your sensory survival kit may look completely different from mine. The important thing is to include items that will help to neutralize some of the unpleasant sensory experiences you regularly encounter.
- Listen to Music – My greatest weapon against sensory overloads is music. Listening to music distracts me from focusing on my sensory discomfort and helps to block out distressing noise, such as traffic and construction noise. Listening to music also makes me happy.
- Turn Your Bedroom Into a Sensory Haven – Since the outside world can be a traumatic sensory experience, it’s important to have a sanctuary. My bedroom is a place where I can go to soothe and calm myself. A place where I can recharge. There are no fluorescent lights and unpleasant noises and smells. It’s a place I can completely control. When creating your sensory haven, design it so the space works for you. Small changes can have major results. Keep in mind that different colours can create different moods. I’ve painted my room a greyish blue because shades of blue are supposed to be more relaxing. Determine whether you feel more positive, relaxed and in control when your room is messy or tidy? I feel better when my room is tidy and so I try to keep it that way. The most important thing is to create a room that has positive energy, where you feel comfortable and secure.
- Get Plenty of Sleep – Like many autistic people, I have trouble sleeping. Sometimes it’s because I’m obsessively worrying about something. If you’re being kept awake by a worry, write it down on a piece of paper, fold it several times and place it on the floor by your bedroom door. Tell yourself that there’s nothing more you can do about it and that you’ll try to sort it out in the morning. It’s also important to get into the right state of mind. If you’re a visual thinker, visualize your perfect place. Focus on what you see, what you can smell and hear and how you feel. If any bad thoughts creep in, banish them and focus on your perfect place. This will help to calm and soothe you and make it easier for you to fall asleep.
Some autistic individuals find that melatonin sprays or tablets help them to fall asleep. I prefer to use a lavender spray. I’m also a huge fan of weighted blankets. Initially, I was sceptical, because I’m sensitive to touch and have a low threshold to pain. But I’ve been converted. I have a soft, fluffy, grey ten-pound weighted blanket that provides just enough pressure to anchor, calm and soothe me. If you frequently have trouble sleeping, I highly recommend that you try one.
- Use Your Clothes as a Shield – My skin is particularly sensitive, especially to wind and temperature variations. I try to cover my skin as much as possible, because I hate the sensation of someone lightly brushing against my skin. It feels like hundreds of insects are crawling on the area where I was touched. I find that clothing is a great way to create a protective barrier. I always layer and try to wear a front-zip hoodie, so that I have an additional layer of clothing if I get cold and I have a makeshift cushion if I have to sit on an uncomfortable chair.
- Manage Your Anxiety – The best way to prevent your sensory sensitivities from spiralling out of control is by managing your anxiety. When my anxiety levels are high, my sensory sensitivities significantly worsen. My sensory intolerances have been at their absolute worse when I’ve been bullied at school. Suddenly, I’m unable to tolerate things that usually don’t bother me, including the texture of certain foods and some of my clothes. Sometimes situations that cause us anxiety are out of our control, but, where possible, reducing your anxiety will also reduce your sensory overloads.
- Avoid Places that Trigger Sensory Overloads – There are some places that are a sensory nightmare. For me, it’s supermarkets. I also hate petrol stations. I loathe the smell of petrol. It’s usually easy to avoid going to places that trigger your sensory overloads. Having said that, it’s important that you don’t make your list too long, because otherwise there’s a danger you’ll never venture beyond your doorstep.
I hope that you find some of these suggestions helpful. Don’t be afraid to modify them and to experiment with different options until you identify techniques and solutions that work for you. By actively identifying, understanding and managing your sensory sensitivities and practicing self-care, you can drastically reduce your sensory overloads and feel more in control of your life.
Siena Castellon is a 17-year old neurodiversity advocate, who is autistic, dyslexic, dyspraxic and has ADHD. Siena launched Neurodiversity Celebration Week, which aims to encourage schools to flip the narrative from focusing on the challenges and drawbacks of being neurodivergent to focusing on their strengths and talents. Siena is the author of “The Spectrum Girl’s Survival Guide: How To Be Awesome and Autistic”, a book for autistic teen girls.