Since I’m experiencing my third bout of insomnia in the last month, I thought I’d document the sources of different overstimulations that may have contributed to my sleeping issues, as well as meltdowns, shutdowns, migraines, diarrhea, and/or anxiety attacks.
None of these stimuli are from long ago; these are all events within a 30-day window. I’ve also listed common physical reactions to the source, parenthetically.
- car brights on opposite side of road (nausea)
- driving during sunset, no sunglasses (nausea)
- incandescent bulbs oscillating/flickering (irritant)
- infinity mirror on flash setting, rather than fade (lightheaded)
- tracking nonverbal behavior over prolonged socialization (confusion)
- tracking eye movement over prolonged socialization (confusion)
- flashing disco ball (irritant)
- observing nonlinear dance performances from many people (confusion)
For easier navigation, I’ve collected these lists based on different stimuli; I’ve also included links to Wikipedia articles for each of these senses, in the event you’d like to read about any of them further.
An (irritant) stimulates, positively or negatively, to overload; (nausea) cause gut reactions at best, illness at worst; (confusion) triggers anxiety; (fight) and (flight) similarly trigger anxiety, although I believe it’s more associated with the reptilian brain; and (lightheaded) is straightforward.
- prolonged, uninterrupted screaming baby (flight)
- shouting (fight)
- being subjected to shouting (fight)
- neighbor’s illegal fireworks (confusion)
- club music (nausea)
These situations are overstimulating for me,—or at least in hindsight, I imagine they must have been overstimulating, since I poignantly remember them—but the same scenarios may not necessarily be as difficult for other autistic people.
- too spicy (shaking)
- too fishy (irritant)
- McDonald’s damn dried onions (irritant)
Bearing in mind the fact that this is a documentation of one person,—not of autism as a whole—I still hope my experiences shine some light on how everyday, neurotypical experiences can drain autistic people.
- waft of freshly sown cow poop (nausea)
- woman in stairwell too much perfume (nausea)
- too much citronella in aromatherapy diffuser (lightheaded)
- 3-day old, accidentally abandoned full trashbin (nausea)
- clouds of cat litter and ammonia (irritant)
Beyond offering a window into what overstimulation looks like, my personal purpose for this exercise is to track patterns—likely, this will involve repeating the structure of this post a few times—so I can improve my self-care regimen and living space in the future.
- too much pressure during hug (irritant)
- too little pressure during hug (irritant)
- too much rubbing in one spot (irritant)
- multiple loved ones touching/hugging at once (confusion)
- stranger bumping into me (flight)
Have any questions come to mind as you’ve been reading? Feel free to leave a comment; I’ll do my best to answer.
- burst of movement while trying to swim underwater (lightheaded)
- burst of movement while crossing parking lot (lightheaded)
- dancing (lightheaded)
I have a balancing stool (a.k.a. a wobble stool) to help me with this part of my sensory make-up; it’s helped tremendously in building a relationship with my core.
- sleeping in 1-2 hour bursts without air conditioning during heat wave (nausea)
- sleeping in front of wall unit air conditioner during heat wave (irritant)
- gardening during heat wave (nausea)
- walking half a mile during heat wave (nausea)
- swimming until sunburn during heat wave (irritant)
- too hot bath (irritant)
I’m sure many people feel the heat is particularly unbearable lately, especially if you’re also a Californian; but please bear in mind that autistic people have sensory sensitivity, which means whatever feeling of heat you experience, it’s likely amplified for us.
- prolonged fine motor in non-dominant foot while navigating traffic (irritant)
- unfamiliar fine motor with handheld trackball (irritant)
- disassociation from body during meltdowns (confusion)
- numbness in body during shutdowns (confusion)
- a few eye twitches (irritant)
My sister dubbed me with the endearing nickname “penguin” after watching me waddle quickly across a crosswalk, back when we were in high school. This is just one of many examples of how my movement isn’t neurotypical.
- kicked foot into desk on accident while intentionally kicking bean bag (fight)
- bumped head into car door frame after misjudging how to get out (fight)
- bumped into wall while trying to walk to restroom in the dark (fight)
- stepped on shattered glass (flight)
- kinked neck sleeping on floor (nausea)
- kinked back driving too much (irritant)
- several migraines (flight)
- jaw grinding and tightness (irritant)
- tooth ache after eating ribs and flossing (nausea)
I’ve always felt my sensitivity to pain is the greatest weakness autism has afforded me; that said, I wouldn’t trade in my sensory sensitivity, if I was given the option. I wouldn’t trade in my autism, either.
- two meals 6-8 hours apart, with 8-12 hours rest, rather than regulated 3 meals 4-5 hours apart (nausea)
- binge eating at 3 am (confusion)
It’s possible to be sensory sensitive without being autistic. This is why, when my extended family acknowledge me as “sensory sensitive,” without accepting that I’m also on the spectrum, it’s incredibly frustrating; it’s a half-acceptance.
- smoked a cigarette (irritant)
- gaseous bubbles from greasy food (nausea)
- panicked, tight breathing mid-anxiety attack (lightheaded)
It’s also possible to be autistic without being sensory sensitive. Some autistic people only report sensitivity with a couple of sensory inputs. It’s important to always listen to an autistic person’s authentic story of their experience, versus arguing with them that they should be “this way” or “that way” in order to be on the spectrum.
- smoked a cigarette (irritant)
When you’re autistic and sensory sensitive, this means not only will sensory sensitivity lead to migraines, but they’ll lead to those unique meltdowns and shutdowns we only see on the spectrum; and to complicate matters, a triggered migraine can spiral into a shutdown.
When I’m having a meltdown, I want everyone to steer clear of me. I want room to find myself again. But when I’m having a shutdown, it’s okay to offer help; however, I don’t expect that offer, and I also know it can be frustrating when I’m reduced to only grunting or pointing to communicate until my mind comes back together again.
Since meltdowns and shutdowns are incredibly exhausting, they leave me lethargic for the rest of the day; because of this, I feel it’s important to really address this aspect of being autistic. Another autistic person may decide not to prioritize the downs as much as I do—they may focus on a different goal, like improving social skills—and this is okay.
It should be up to the autistic person to choose how to improve their lives, just like how it’s up to neurotypical people to choose how to improve their lives. Of course, we all should work together as human beings to not be hostile towards one another; that is an ultimate goal that everyone can share.
One final note: Not all overstimulating experiences are “bad;” but none of them should be qualified as positive or negative, because the point is to identify overstimulations, not evaluate ethical quandaries. This is why, when it comes to meltdowns, shutdowns, and other autistic struggles, seemingly “pleasant surprises” can be as much of a wreck as unpleasant situations.
Kourtnie has an MFA in Creative Writing from CSU Fresno and a BA in English from CSU Fullerton. When she isn't writing or making art, she's moonlighting as a professor at community colleges. Read her writing at Kourtnie.net or Wattpad.com/user/KourtnieNet.