Sensory overload has and always will be a big part of my life. Because my sensory experience is so intense, it greatly impacts my social skills. For example, when I am overloaded I sometimes have instances where someone is talking to me and although I can hear the words they are saying to me, I cannot fully process it. It as if a foreign language is being spoken, leaving me to guess the response. This can happen even when there is no sensory overload at all but when I am tired or having a slower processing day. In childhood, doctors initially thought I could possibly be deaf for this reason. What they didn’t realize was that I can hear everything (probably too well) and it is the processing I struggle with. I rarely hear my name being called in rooms or hallways, leading to awkward encounters. This is just one way my sensory impacts my daily social skills.
Here are some ways I have learned to cope with the overwhelming sensory as it relates to social skills:
1. Have certain responses at the ready.
Whether it’s because I cannot recognize someone’s face or I simply didn’t process the words quickly enough, there are countless times during my day that I fake it until I make it. I have memorized different social situations and responses to make the guessing game a little easier. This way if I am in an elevator and someone recognizes me I can have a small conversation without letting on I don’t know who they are, simple things like the weather or that I hope they are having a nice morning. If I am in a loud room I have responses I can say even though I can’t hear the person. To get an idea of what to say I practice different scenarios and observe how other people may interact.
I am stubborn in many ways and don’t like to make accommodations for myself even if I need them. However, in my adult life I’ve realized how much easier life is if I simply make the accommodations I know I need before entering a social situation. For example, I rarely show up somewhere alone and typically carpool with someone else because I know that I cannot recognize faces and will be unable to find the people I am meeting in a crowd. Carpooling is often a must because I get lost easily and have no way of redirecting myself. I turn down a lot of invitations to concerts and bars because I know the sensory will be too overwhelming. I do research on a social outing before accepting and figure out what I can do to accommodate myself. For example, a common thing I do is check to see if there is parking at the location. If it is only parallel parking I know I need to carpool because I cannot parallel park. Or I look up the satellite image of the place to see if I can easily get there and what to look for. I look on Google to see the loudest and most crowded times to determine when I quieter more accessible time for me to go would be. All of this research allows me to prepare myself and accommodate for any sensory deficit.
3. Create your Own Social Situations.
Inviting people to plans I make allows me to know that I will be comfortable in the situation, like to a movie or a hike. Creating my own social situations helps me stay in control of the sensory and ensure that I do not end up in a scenario I can’t handle well. This also helps me to turn down social experiences I know will be too much such as a loud party but still have close friendships by doing other things that I enjoy with my close friends on a different occasion. I am not left out because while I turn down things I may even wish I could go to but can’t because of a bad sensory or processing day, I have my own social outings to look forward to. They do not drain me because I suggest the things I am most comfortable with and feel most natural in.
4. Ask for Help.
I have found ways to ask for help about social cues even if the person doesn’t know I am autistic. For example, maybe I’m at a work function and I am wondering about the meaning behind a nonverbal cue. I may ask a coworker I’m close to something like “I wonder what Johnny meant when he said…” This allows me to get the answer without revealing myself if I am not comfortable or ready to do so. The only caution with this strategy is it can come across as gossip if not careful. Keep it inquisitive and only ask one trusted person. Another example: “Was Johnny wanting me to come over to him/was he waving at me?” Again, this is something even those not on the spectrum sometimes ask. One of the hardest things for me is knowing whether or not someone is looking at me or waving at me when there are other people in the room. How do I know it’s me they are signaling and not someone else? Probably by eye contact, but I don’t register gazes or know how to lock eyes from that far away. Asking takes the mystery out.
5. Be kind to yourself.
Taking frequent sensory breaks actually helps me to be better at reading people. If I burn myself out and I am overtired, my ability to interpret social cues gets worse and my processing gets worse. When I am overtired my brain loses any ability it has to filter out the sensory, making is louder than usual (if that’s even possible!) causing me to become extremely anxious, irritable, and unable to participate socially. Many times it also was one of the causes of why I sought self injurious behavior in order to drown out the sensory overload I am feeling. The more tired I am, the worse it is. As a result, I avoid situations where I would have to stay up all night in a social context and allow myself to recharge as much as possible. I make getting rest a priority so I can continue to function. Even the smallest sleep deprivation causes hardship for me. For me, losing just a few hours of sleep feels like I’ve lost a whole night’s rest and makes it hard to function in the sensory onslaught.
Overall, always listen to yourself. You know what you need. There are ways to battle the sensory onslaught while still enjoying life and participating socially. And if you are a loved one of someone who is on the autism spectrum, I hope this gives a glimpse into why we may be more irritable than other people or crave solitude.