Autistic Sensory Overload – How Bright Lights and Bright Colours Affect Us

Autism/Apergers has an affect on all of our senses.  For most of us we are hyper (over) sensitive to information received by our senses, although some of us with autism/Aspergers are hypo-sensitive.  I am very hypersensitive to light and bright colours.  This type of sensory overload has the greatest impact on my life.

Sight Overload

With my high functioning autism (Asperger’s) sight overload causes tiredness, fatigue, headaches and confusion.  All of which trigger feelings such as unhappiness, pain or being irritable.

Tiredness and fatigue occur the most often with sight overload. It can be caused by things such as:

  • Too much sunlight
  • Artificial lights (such as lamps and ceiling lights) that shine too brightly, or directly into my eyes.
  • Bright colours like red and yellow (especially big blocks of colours such as a painted wall).
  • Reflected sunlight or artificial light
  • Computer monitors
  • Mobile phone screens (especially when using in the dark so the bright light is contrasted with the dark background)
  • The television
  • 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 was diagnosed with high functioning autism as recently as a few years ago, I have know about my sensitivity to light my whole adulthood.

As an adolescent I had headaches most days.  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 such as ibuprofen and paracetamol. Sight overload really affected my everyday life. As it affected me so much I spent many hours researching how to reduce it. From this, and life experience, I found many ways of reducing sight 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

Probably in relation to my autism/Aspergers I constantly check weather forecasts.  If it is sunny outside, or sun has been forecast, I will always wear a cap or sunglasses.  This greatly reduces the amount of strong light from the sun entering my eyes.

If the sun is low, such as a morning or evening, I will always choose to wear sunglasses, but most of the time I will wear a cap outdoors. I have, in the past, worn a cap and sunglasses together but it looks too odd so I don’t do this anymore.

When I am driving I wear sunglasses nearly all the time (except on the dullest of days or night times of course).  I have had the odd negative comment in the past, but I brush this aside.

In the house I always use side lights or lamps where possible. In addition to this I use low wattage (lower brightness) bulbs in all the light fittings.  If my wife turns on a ceiling light I will instantly shield my eyes as I know it could give me an instant headache. 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.  This ensures there is no darkness around the light source.  As TV images constantly change from dark to light, our eye and pupils keep adjusting which is a big cause of eyestrain.

I also make sure no light is reflecting off the screen, such as my laptop. If it is I will either close the curtains or move into another location. If light is reflected from another source, such as on a glass table or a window I will either move or cover the reflected light (The last time this happened I was visiting my dad and the sun was reflecting off his glass table into my eyes.  I put a cap on the table to stop this).

The key is, to always try your best to stop too much light entering your eyes. 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.  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.

When I know I am going on a shopping trip like this, sunglasses look a little strange so I now wear a baseball cap.  This really helps to reduce the bright lights from above entering my eye and some of the bright colours from the side if I face forwards.  I will also avoid the brighter aisles such as where the toys are located if I don’t need to go down them.  There are still some occasions when the lights are very bright, and the displays are all white, so I decide to leave the shop.  I often think to myself just how autistic unfriendly many of the shops are.

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.

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 get caught out. 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.

5 thoughts on “Autistic Sensory Overload – How Bright Lights and Bright Colours Affect Us

  • March 3, 2019 at 10:43 am
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    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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  • April 22, 2021 at 4:26 pm
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    Hi thanks for the insight. I’m researching asd-informed architecture and interior design for a primary school. I know everyone with asd has different needs and preferences for visual and physical comfort, but I’m wandering if you can give me some advice on preferred shapes/patterns, or whether I should avoid them altogether. I was thinking of including grid like shelve units and semi-opaque glass brick walls to diffuse light through the building (that express a grid pattern). Of course as someone without asd (as far as I know) I want to make sure this isn’t something that could be distressing for kids with asd. Any suggestions would be so greatly appreciated!

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    • April 24, 2021 at 5:08 am
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      It’s a tough one to answer without seeing the finished product but I think as long as it’s not too bright (for example ensuring it doesn’t let too much sun shine through it, or doesn’t use contrasting colours) it sounds really good.

      I think the patterns should be fine. You could design one or more ideas on paper first and get the opinions of people at the school. Whether this is just the teachers, who know the students better, or the students themselves.

      It’s not an area I know a great deal about so I’m sorry I couldn’t help you more than this.

      Reply
  • August 3, 2021 at 7:49 pm
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    I have this. I have bought lamps for each room in my flat. I can’t tolerate bright ceiling lights as they give me migraines and they don’t make me feel relaxed. Dentists, hospitals, and gp surgeries need to consider this, as the bright luminous white lights can disturb our brains.

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    • August 3, 2021 at 7:54 pm
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      Thanks for the comment and I fully agree. At the dentist I literally close my eyes the whole time I am in the dentist’s chair rather than having the sensory overload and headaches afterwards.

      Reply

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