‘Too Much Information!’
Dealing with Information Overload On The Spectrum
Imagine you are at a new dessert shop, there is a rainbow of ice cream flavours laid out ready to serve delight to those who dare to relish in exotic flavours. The aroma of waffles sweetly linger, pancakes softly sizzle. You watch as customers in front beam and glide out of the shop with there mountains of sweet indulged treats.
You look and realise it’s your turn, you haven’t made a decision yet because you were observing your environment and you don’t want to hold up the queue, so in a panic you blurt out an ice cream order you have had several times before and as you pay, you spot something you really wish you had picked. You pay in a panic and walk out feeling defeated, but you enjoy your ice cream anyway.
You probably just experienced information overload!
Information overload occurs when the amount of information affects our ability to make a decision and take action. All humans experience this, the difference for a neurodivergent person may be our reaction.
The dessert shop is one minor experience in a persons day, while that situation might have felt a bit stressful, your brain may be able to discard that and move on to the next task. For lots of autistic people just that experience may have been so overwhelming we are left feeling exhausted for the rest of our day. This level of stress can feel constant and our brains often find it hard to strike a balance between too much information and not enough information.
A well known autistic trait is our ability to compartmentalise. We are very good at this, but when it comes to processing information, our brains may not do this. I like to think of my brain like a recycling centre that doesn’t always separate materials and doesn’t always know how to reduce, reuse and recycle information. It doesn’t filter information until there is so much its overflowing, when its overflowing is when overload occurs.
One of the battles we can face on a daily basis is striving to learn as much as possible so that we can prepare ourselves for unexpected changes, but our brain doesn’t filter out other information or the information may take longer to process. There are many factors that can lead us to overload and here are some of the most common ones:
The reactions autistic people will have to overload are individual. It may cause meltdowns, shutdowns and burnout. You may find you or your loved one:
- Struggles with short-term memory
- Becomes withdrawn
- Hides and blocks sensory input
- Self soothes through stimulatory repetitive movements or behaviours
- May not communicate in the way they usually do (Non verbal may not make sounds, or use communication aids – verbal may find it too much to talk, write, and maintain conversation).
- Anxiety and stress levels are heightened
There are lots of strategies we can try to help us manage and recover when we are overloaded. Such as:
- Headphones, Noise filtering ear plugs, Sunglasses.
- Using a comforting object (Fidget, Toy, Material)
- Rubbing a preferred scent on our wrist or clothing to smell.
- Turning off electronics
- Using sensory aids to filter out stimuli
- Having instructions broken down
- Using timers and visuals
- Scheduling breaks too reset.
Something that is really important for autistic people is to recognise our sensory triggers. Once we’ve found those sensory triggers we can make adjustments. I’ve found it helpful for myself to write down any sensory triggers in a notebook, but sometimes I’ll need help from those around me to help me express why I might be feeling overloaded.
Sensory aids and using coping strategies are like speed bumps on the road. We may not always appreciate them and want to go at our own speed, but overall they can keep us safe. Information overload will never totally disappear for autistic people, but using these things helps us to slow down and create an environment that works for us and our needs.
Thanks for reading!