The downside of being autistic is that our nervous systems tend to be very sensitive to sensory input, and tend to go into overwhelm, causing meltdowns or shutdowns. (AKA “sensory processing disorder”.) That’s a simplistic explanation, but this piece is aimed at people who already know what I’m talking about :-D
The beauty of being autistic is that we come with built-in ways to calm our nervous systems. I think of these as autistic superpowers (and not the only ones we have, imho). But a lot of allistic people play a kind of “unless you’re a savant/genius, autistic people aren’t worthwhile human beings” game with us so some of us are not into the idea of having superpowers. If that’s you, just think of it as a handy built-in tool.
The downside (again) is that many of us are forced out of using those built-in tools by people who don’t want us to “seem autistic.” So, often, we never discover them, or are viciously forced to suppress them. Additionally, each of us has slightly different tools. For example, rocking might help me, but make someone else feel seasick.
The following is a short guide to how to find the tools that will get YOU out of overwhelm, or prevent you from even going into it.
First, you need some options for what your tools might be. I’ll put a bunch of suggestions at the end of this post. You may also have some things that have helped you in the past.
My experience was that I had a handful of things that I knew helped, but I didn’t use them consistently. Part of the purpose of this piece is to encourage you to be aware not only of what works for you, but of when you need to use it. It is A LOT easier to do this kind of self-care when you have a sense that it will actually work consistently, and a sense of how well it will work for you!!
Also, if you are the parent of an autistic child: this is the shit you should be teaching them. Thank you. Sincerely, a former autistic child.
STEP ONE: On a scale of 0-10, where 0 is “perfectly calm,” 5 is “getting overwhelmed,” and 10 is “already having a meltdown/shutdown,” rate how close you are to sensory overwhelm.
Autistics, please note: it does not matter if you “get it right.” There really is no objective gauge for this. It doesn’t matter, because we are measuring how much (or whether) this number changes.
So if today you say you’re at a 7, and tomorrow you feel the same way but you have a better sense of how overwhelmed you can get and you now call the same feeling a 3… it doesn’t matter.
All we care about here is how far you currently feel like you are from 0, and then, how close we can get the number to 0. So just pick something that sounds pretty accurate.
STEP TWO: Write it down. Please and thank you.
STEP THREE: Pick a thing to try.
STEP FOUR: Set a timer and try it for three minutes. UNLESS you hate it. If you hate it, or even just find it really annoying, please stop immediately, pick something else, and try THAT for three minutes.
(Please note: three minutes is a little bit of an arbitrary number. I find that it’s a pretty good amount of time to actually shift things, while not taking too long to try something else. But if you want to try it for more or less time, go right ahead. I do recommend trying everything (that you don’t immediately reject) for the same amount of time - it just doesn’t have to be three minutes long.)
STEP FIVE: Stop doing the thing, and gauge where you are on the same 0-10 scale.
STEP SIX: Write your current number down.
STEP SEVEN: If you have found something that significantly reduced your overwhelm, you can stop. I mean, you can stop any time anyway, I’m not the boss of you. But you don’t have to go through and test everything on the list below. Just find as many things as you want; or spend as much time doing this at once as you want. You can always do it again later if you want more tools.
anniegst served as my guinea pig for this method yesterday. Thanks, Annie!
She rated her overwhelm as an 8 initially. I found a no-talking, crinkle-sounds ASMR video and handed her the headphones. She almost immediately was like, “this is reaaaaallly annoying, sorry.”
I asked her if there were other sounds that would not be annoying. She said that she thought even white noise would be okay, like rain or something. I switched to the white noise app we both use (Relax and Sleep, which is awesome bc you can play more than one sound at once – it’s free on both Android and iOS) and put the fountain noise on.
She listened to it for about three minutes, and re-rated her overwhelm. As a 2!!
She said that she thought if she kept listening (or if the dog in the other room stopped barking) she would be able to get down to a zero.
I didn’t check in with her to see if she did. But I did get the dog to stop barking!
Here is the list of different things people said helped them, when I requested your “autistic swiss army knives”. There are A LOT OF THEM, and there are likely far more out there. I think this gives a great overview of the possibilities though, thanks everybody!!!!
I’ll give you the summary first: By far the most common ones were rocking, and pressure
from blankets/sheets, either weighted or wrapped tightly. Flapping and
music – in general or loud, or on repeat, or specific pieces – were
also extremely popular. I’ve mostly tried to only put each of
these once when many people suggested them, but I’ve included a few
There were also multiple people mentioning echolalia, chewing
on things (gum/chew necklaces/toys/fingers), singing, playing with one’s
hair, reading, drinking tea, playing with textures, drawing/coloring, and showering!