Autistic Sensory Overload – How to Cope with Loud Noises

I always thought that I was quite unaffected to noise overload with my high functioning autism (Asperger’s Syndrome) but the more I have thought about it the more I have realised that I am very affected by noise and always have been. The ways in which noise affects me the most are below:

  • I can easily have a meltdown if I drop a glass as this triggers emotions immediately (without fail) such as panic, being scared, not knowing what to do and anger. At one point I stopped drinking out of glasses and used plastic cups instead because I hated breaking glasses so much.
  • Conversations with more than two people also causes me sensory overload, especially when more than one conversation is happening at once so there is a criss cross of information. It causes me so much confusion that I just stop communicating all together. I can try and follow one of the conversations but I always end up listening to the other and I just lose track of who is talking to who and what I should and should not be listening to.
  • I am nearly always startled by an unexpected noise (especially if it is loud).
  • I have a greater sensitivity to sound than normal people. This means that I often hear things in the distance that other people do not, but it also means that loud sounds are even louder for me and therefore they cause me discomfort that normal people do not experience unless the sound becomes even louder so is uncomfortable for them. I will cover or block my ears if the sound becomes too loud, at the expense of looking odd to people around me but sometimes it is too painful not to do this.
  • Loud noises from different sources is also a trigger for me. Examples of this are a crowd of people talking or if my youngest son cries whilst my older son is shouting or talking loudly. I do manage to shut out noises sometimes but other times I cannot shut it out and this affects me a great deal. Like with other sensory overload issues I have it can cause me to become tired, upset, not in control (if I cannot escape or reduce the noise) and sometimes angry.

Like many things with high functioning autism I was under the false assumption that everyone suffered or had the same problems as me. Over the years I found out this was not the case and it never fails to surprise me that most people do not have issues that I assume that all people must have. As there are many different triggers to me having auditory sensory overload it causes me to have many different emotions that are dependant on each trigger. The main emotions and feelings that I experience are being startled, confusion, stress, feeling of not being in control (as the only way I can avoid it is to walk away but sometimes this is not possible), fatigue (if the noise goes on for a long period of time such as a party – although I avoid parties where possible), none communicative (usually due to information overload or not being able to follow conversations so switching off) and tiredness. There are a number of ways in which I can reduce auditory overload. The main one is what most people with high functioning autism or Asperger’s syndrome use which is avoidance. I do avoid many social situations. For example I do not go to many parties, pubs, clubs or busy places. Although I avoid most parties there are some that I do enjoy such as small family gatherings like on Christmas day or going out for a meal to celebrate a family members birthday. Although I struggle to make conversation, even with family members, I do enjoy these events. I often spend most of the time with my wife and children though. Whether I will like the party depends on what type of party it is. If there is a lot of people I hate it and if there is a lot of people I do not know I will not go any more as it is too stressful. I even find meeting up with a friend for a one to one catch up stressful if I have not seen that person for a while and it will play on my mind for many days before meeting up but I usually enjoy it once I am there but it is hard. I am also lucky to have a part time job instead of a full time one so I can avoid places when they are busy like supermarkets, clothes shops, theme parks (where I take my children on school inset days) and even restaurants (as I often go to them in the day time instead of night). I tend to go to these places on a Monday morning or Tuesday as this is the time when we are both off work and the shops are very quiet compared to the busier times. I totally avoid all of these places when they are very busy such as on Bank holidays, weekends and near Christmas. There are stressful times for me at work such as Christmas and end of year parties where it gets very noisy inside due to music being played or a large amount of students talking and enjoying themselves. If it gets too much I am lucky enough that I can go outside as there will always be students that I support that are like me who find the noise too much so I can talk to them and support them instead of the people who are in the main party. Another good escape mechanism is to go to the toilet. I always need the toilet anyway, so do not need to go just to get some rest from the noise, but I always find it peaceful in there when things get a bit too much and it gives me those few essential minutes to relax or calm down if things get too much. Another avoidance technique I always use is to eat my lunch in the car when I am at work (if I am given the choice) for reasons such as to get away (escape), calm down, relax, not having to deal with social situations (as having lunch in the staffroom would be the hardest part of working for me by far) and to reduce some of the sensory overload issues that I face at work. Sometimes I will only get about 20 minutes but it is still worth doing it. Unfortunately by doing this I am socially excluding myself from others a bit, people cannot get to know me as well and I feel like a misfit myself as I cannot handle situations like having my lunch with my colleagues even though I class some of them as being my friends. I have tried to fight this in the past by having my lunch in the staffroom but I will always use an available computer for comfort and I will hardly talk to another person, unless they talk to me or ask me a question so it becomes incredibly awkward. But by doing small things like having lunch alone at work it makes work just about manageable so even with the negatives it is something that I need to do. If I use public transport such as a bus (which I do not use very often) or go on a plane I will always use headphones as they block out a lot of sound. Sometimes I will wear them without playing music, as I do not feel like listening to music, but they still block out a lot of surrounding noise. I have not tried noise cancelling headphones yet but I can imagine that they would be even better. I have read that some people with high functioning autism do not like the sound of fans but I am the opposite. As they create white noise, which blocks out surrounding noises, I often find I am most relaxed when the fan is turned on especially if there is a lot of noise in the background that I do not want to hear.

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