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. I get so confused by it that I stop complete stop communicating until I can process it all. I try my best to follow one of the conversations, but cannot filter out the other and then lose track of what is being said.
  • I ‘m always startled by an unexpected noise (especially if it is loud).
  • I have a greater sensitivity to sound than other people. This means that I often hear things in the distance that other people do not.  But the negative is that loud sounds are even louder causing me discomfort that normal people do not experience until the sound gets much louder.   I will cover or block my ears if the sound becomes too loud, at the expense of looking odd to people around as it is too painful.
  • A mixture of loud noises is also a trigger for me. Such as a crowd of people talking or when my youngest son cries whilst my older son is shouting or talking loudly. I can shut out noises sometimes, but other times I can’t which affects me a great deal. Like my other sensory overload issues it causes me to become tired, upset, not in control (if I cannot escape or reduce the noise) and sometimes angry.

Like many things with my 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.  It never fails to surprise me that most people don’t have issues I have had my whole life.

As there are many different triggers to auditory sensory overload there are many negative feelings, emotions and outcomes.  Such as:

  • Being startled
  • Confused
  • Stressed
  • Feeling of not being in control (as the only way I can avoid it is to walk away, but this isn’t always possible).
  • Fatigued (if the noise goes on for a long period of time such as a party – although I avoid parties where possible).
  • Being withdrawn and not communicating (usually due to information overload or not being able to follow conversations so switching off).
  • Tiredness

There are a number of ways in which I can reduce auditory overload. The main one is avoidance , which is what most people with high functioning autism/Asperger’s Syndrome do.  I avoid many things such as going to most parties, pubs, clubs or busy places. That being said there are some social event I 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, and I often spend most of the time with my wife and children. Whether I will like the party depends on what type of party it is. If there is a lot of people, I hate it. If there’s a lot of people I don’t know, I will not go any more as it is too stressful and causes too much anxiety beforehand thinking about it. I even find meeting up with a friend for a catch up stressful if I have not seen that person for a while.  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 lucky to be working part time, instead of a full time, 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 I’m off work and the shops are very quiet compared to the busier times. I totally avoid these places on busy periods such as 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.  There are always students like me who find the noise too much, so I can talk to 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 don’t go just for a rest, but I always find it peaceful in there when things get a bit too much.  It gives me those few essential minutes to relax or calm down. 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 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.  In addition I will hardly talk to another person, unless they talk to me or ask me a question and those silent periods 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.  This is because there are times I don’t 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 don’t want to hear.

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