Question: what's a major cause of meltdowns in pupils with autism?
Answer: sensory overload.
But what does sensory overload actually mean? And what does it feel like?
Imagine you're working at your desk and someone magically exaggerates your sense of touch.
Suddenly, you feel:
- Your shirt label cutting into your neck
- Your pen carving down into the raw skin between your thumb and finger
- Your legs aching from the hard, unforgiving chair beneath you
You try to work, but over time, those physical sensations grind you down.
You can't concentrate. You start to feel stressed, anxious.
But the sensations don't go away.
They're always there, gnawing away at you. Concentrating is impossible.
It feels like you're under attack. From all those physical sensations, not to mention the work piling up on your desk.
Then comes the overwhelm...
You have to get out, to escape. You can't cope any more.
That wouldn't feel good, right?
(And we only imagined one sense being 'dialled up' and exaggerated. Now throw in the other senses: vision, smell, hearing...)
That's why it's so important to help students with autism manage their sensory differences.
If you want to have a better understanding of what it's like to experience sensory overload, the following 4 videos are an excellent place to start.
They all simulate what it's like to experience sensory overload. They're all short, focussed and convey how everyday sensations, that many of us can ignore, can fuel stress and overwhelm in certain pupils.
They're also a great resource for when you need to start a conversation about sensory needs with colleagues or other pupils.
(Note: please be aware that all these videos may be unsuitable for those with epilepsy as they contain strobing effects. The videos also contain heightened images and sounds that may be unsuitable for viewers with sensory differences, such as those with autism or sensory processing disorder.)
Sensory differences - a street scene
If you work with colleagues who don't 'get' sensory overwhelm, this video is a brilliant place to start exploring the topic.
This animation by Miguel Jiron explores the wall of sensory information people with autism face in everyday life.
It shows how sound, light and movement can feel like an assault for anyone who experiences sensory difficulties. It also explores how the repetition of everyday sounds can be stressful and feed the fight-or-flight reflex.
By combining visual feedback, audio effects, vignetting and colours, Jiron's video explains how its main character becomes overwhelmed... without speaking a single word.
Sensory overload throughout the day
This sensory overload simulation, by Crab Apples, explores what it's like to be extremely sensitive to sensory information in a range of daily situations.
One sequence (scroll forward to 2:08s) explores the wave of sensory information faced by students with autism in the classroom, from ticking clocks, to tapping fingers and background chatter.
It also emphasises the dazzling effect of fluorescent lighting in its library sequence.
Fluorescent tubes work by strobing on and off at very high frequencies. Although our eyes don't register individual changes of brightness, our brains do detect the overall effect of fluctuations. This has a detrimental effect on large numbers of people, and is associated with headaches and eye strain - and that's without factoring in an individual's sensory sensitivities.
Walking through a shopping centre
This video from The National Autistic Society, titled simply, "Can you make it to the end?" shows how it feels to walk through a shopping centre as a child with autism.
This simulation highlights how everyday sensory information - even the sound of automatic doors, the flash from a photobooth, the sounds from an ATM - can be disorienting. Interestingly, it also mimics the effect of blinking as the child moves through the shopping mall, providing a jolting 'pattern interrupt' to all the sensory information bombarding the child.
In the end, the child is no longer able to manage the assault on his senses, resulting in a meltdown, and nearby shoppers are less than sympathetic to the boy (and his mother's) struggles.
The video ends with a simple message: "I'm not naughty. I'm just autistic . And I just get too much information."
Carly's Cafe explores how Carly Fleischmann, a 17 year old girl living with non-verbal Autism, experiences the sensory overload of visiting a cafe.
This video does an excellent job of heightening the sensations of light and sound: the roar of traffic, the grinding of coffee machines, of how the light blooms with intensity as Carly's anxieties increase.
It also shows how all the sensory information flooding in acts as a barrier between Carly and her father, who senses her anxieties and attempts to coax her through the experience.
This sequence is based on an excerpt from Carly's book, "Carly's Voice: Breaking through Autism".