Autistic Sensory Overload – How to Deal with Bright Lights and Colours

Sensory overload can cause many different triggers which in turn can cause many different emotions. There are almost certainly things that I do not know about yet, as I have only just found out I have high functioning autism (Asperger’s Syndrome), but I have included the many I know about.

Visual Overload

With my high functioning autism (Asperger’s) visual overload causes tiredness, fatigue, headaches and confusion which makes my unhappy, in pain or in a very bad mood. Tiredness and fatigue are the most common outcomes of visual overload as these occur the most. It can be caused by too much sunlight, lights that are shining in my eyes, bright colours like red and yellow (especially big blocks of colours such as a painted wall), reflected sunlight, computer monitors, mobile phone screens (especially when using in the dark so the bright light is contrasted with the dark background), the television and reading in the wrong type of light (either too bright so the light reflects off the page into my eyes, or too dark so my eyes strain to read the words). Even though I have only suspected I have had high functioning autism for the past three years I have know about my visual sensory overload for at least 15 years. When I was only just learning about it I had headaches almost every day, I used to have really painful eye strain (that I could only stop if I put a patch over the affected eye, when I was indoors, to prevent light entering it) and by taking painkillers almost constantly. Visual overload really affected my every day life. As it affected me so much I spent many hours researching how to reduce it and from this, and learning from experience, I found many ways of helping to reduce visual overload so I have far fewer headaches. But even today there are still times when I cannot prevent or reduce it and I have the headaches and eye strain as a consequence.

There are a number of measures that I found for reduces visual overload. Some of these are very obvious but I will list them anyway.

Stopping bright light entering my eyes – If it is sunny outside or the weather has given it out to be sunny later that day I will always wear a cap or sunglasses to stop that light entering my eyes. If the sun is low such as a morning or evening then I will always choose to wear sunglasses. I have, in the past, worn a cap and sunglasses together but it looks too odd so I will only do this in the hight of summer. I will nearly always wear sunglasses when I am driving, unless it is very dull, as so much light enters my eyes if not. I sometimes look odd (I will have an occasional comment from a child such as “he always wears sunglasses”) but it is worth looking slightly odd in this case. In the house I always use side lights where possible. If my wife turns on a ceiling light I will instantly shield my eyes, if I am directly underneath the light. I have also worn caps indoors occasionally if I need a bright light on (for tasks such as ironing or writing). If I am using a computer, phone, TV or reading a book I always make sure a side light is on so there is no darkness around the light source. I also make sure no light is reflecting off the screen such as my laptop and if it is close the curtains or move into another location. If the light source is reflected from another source such as on a glass table or a window I will either move or cover the reflected light (for example the last time this happened I was visiting my dad so I put my cap on top of his glass table where the light was reflected in my eyes to stop it). The key is to always do these things without fail. There are times when I cannot help light entering my eyes. The last time I remember this happening was when I was in a classroom and I was sat in the only available space where sunlight was coming through the window that kept catching my eye. I would normally close or lower a blind (at the expense of making other people slightly uncomfortable in the darker lighting) but on this occasion the window did not have a blind. I could not leave the room or the place as I was supporting a student that needed me so I had to just wait it out. I had a three day headache after but it could not be helped.

Avoiding bright colours – It is strange that these bright colours do not really exist in nature unless it is to warn you of danger. For example fire, the sun, poisonous plants or snakes. When I go for a walk through the countryside or woodland I only see calm colours such as greens, browns and blues. Unfortunately (of fortunately depending on your view) we live in a world full of these bright unnatural colours. If you walk into a supermarket, for example, almost everything is red, yellow, pink, fluorescent green, fluorescent yellow or bright orange. Probably to alert the shopper to a product. It is the same in toy shops where nearly every product is a brightly coloured plastic toy. Going to this kind of place is torture for me but sometimes necessary. I know I will experience visual overload, regardless of the strategies I use, and it will always make me tired, unhappy and a feeling of weakness (and if I get it wrong a headache on top) but even knowing this I have to do it once in a while. On top of this there are many social minefields to negotiate that cause anxiety and therefore more tiredness but I will write about this separately.

If I could, I would wear sunglasses in all of these places, especially polarised that stop reflected light entering my eyes. Unfortunately it is not socially acceptable to wear sunglasses in a shop and therefore it will attract more attention than usual which is the very last thing I would want. I have seen some reactor light and transitions glasses recently, that look like normal glasses but get darker when there is more light but even in a dark shop they have a bit of a filter on them and I am very tempted to use these in the future. All I can do is avoid the brightest aisles (as I am aware of my visual overload I can now recognise when places are causing me discomfort), try and tune out of the bright colours (which helps a touch but not much) or if I feel very uncomfortable leave the shop before it gets worse. I do all of these things and have done all three of them in the last two weeks. I was in Boots just last week and I felt a massive visual overload in a very bright aisle so I looked around for a calmer section. All I could find was a section full of white products which I went to (the white was still too bright but not quite as bad as the conflicting information that bright multicolour aisle was causing me). In the end I had to leave the shop whilst my wife and son where still in there.

The one place that I can avoid bright blocks of colours is in my home. Luckily I can decorate in neutral colours that are dull like greys such as egyption cotton and neutral greens. My eldest did want to decorate his own room in red but we agreed to a warm orange which is not too bright for me but colourful enough for him. My place of comfort is my bedroom where I do not have any bright colours apart from one or two of my sons toys occasionally.

With all this in mind there are some ways in which visual overload can be reduced but even with all these measures there are times when I cannot put measures in place. The place where I have the least control is work. I cannot control the lighting, wear sunglasses to reduce light entering my eyes, avoid bright colours (although most of it is neutral) and stop too much sunlight entering my eyes. I also have to use computers and watch projected videos with incorrect lighting. All of these things cause me to be tired and fatigued and sometimes cause me to have headaches. Its just one of the many things that makes work more difficult for me, than normal people, but I am still much happier that I am in a job that I can manage rather than being out of work.

One thought on “Autistic Sensory Overload – How to Deal with Bright Lights and Colours

  • Shaun - Site Admin
    March 3, 2019 at 10:43 am

    Just a quick update – to avoid bright ceiling lights in supermarkets and indoor shopping centres I tend to wear a baseball cap much more often now. This does a really good job of filtering out most of the light that can cause issues such as headaches whilst staying on the side of being socially acceptable. I have a few different caps to go with different outfits. For example I wear a sporty cap for when I wear a hoody or a smart cap with a small logo like a Ralph Lauren one when I wear a casual shirt. Unlike sunglasses they are totally acceptable indoors so strike the balance between helping me to avoid sensory overload but still fitting into society reasonably well without thinking that people are looking at me for all the wrong reasons.


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