I was 12 the first time that I got on a roller coaster at a theme park. We were given tickets to the theme park at school for reading a certain amount of books. I was just happy to be included in something, so I went along with the group. It started out pretty fun, but then we got in line to ride the roller coaster. I was already extra nervous about it because I did not like heights and did not like the stimulation that comes with certain rides. We got to the top and got buckled in. The roller coaster started going, and so did my anxiety. It was worsened by the high pitch sounds around me, which were screams from excited patrons at the park. My surroundings became very confused, I could not tell if the ride was going up or down, and the stimulation was coming at me too fast and I just wanted it to stop.
The idea of being stuck in a space and not having clear thoughts of my surroundings was frightening to say the least. I did not want to do that again. Once the ride stopped I was very relieved to get off of it. It took me several minutes to feel comfortable with my surroundings again. I heard other people say, “Let’s do that again!” I was just looking forward to trying other rides that came with less stimulation.
For people on the autism spectrum, situations that are fast paced with a lot of lights, sounds, and people can feel very confusing. We start to panic and get upset, this is the result of a sensory processing disorder that we experience. We do not process things in our surroundings with ease. You have probably been in the store and seen a child who was acting very upset, other shoppers whisper “that child needs disciplined”, assuming that the child is having a tantrum over not getting their way, but this is also known as an autism meltdown, which is the same thing as sensory overload. The child is likely experiencing panic and anxiety over the excess sounds, lights, people etc. I also get sensory over load in stores. I get what I need and leave, even at 34 I still don’t like excess stimulation. Shopping centers during the holidays were definitely not an exciting situation for me either. Just the idea of shopping during the week of a holiday was nerve wracking. When I was working retail during the holidays, it was difficult to get through the shift, the store would quickly fill with customers and by the end of the shift there was a huge mess for us to clean up, it was like a tornado came through. The idea of working a job with less stimulation seemed like a dream.
The great news is that today I am working jobs that do not come with too much stimulation. Teaching lessons to students one on one has been great, I can focus without excess sounds distracting me. During the summers I also do in-home care, where I assist people at their homes with activities of daily living, that job also is not too over stimulating, and of course my wonderful job as a Content Writer for The Musical Autist! The key is to help adults on the spectrum to be able to find gainful employment that highlights their talents in an environment where they can grow. This is why accommodations are so key, so that we can find proper help navigating our way in the world and not feel like we are completely lost. If an adult on the spectrum is working in an environment where they are constantly overstimulated, they may feel unheard or may have trouble completing tasks. If a person on the spectrum is in the correct work environment, they will thrive.
Over stimulation can cause people on the spectrum to be left out of things. Any social situation such as the mall or theme parks for long periods of time can leave us feeling very drained. We will sometimes avoid outings that come with too much stimulation, this can lead others to think that we do not want to come along with them when we really do! There are also a lot of people who are not on the spectrum who also have trouble with sensory processing disorder as well! I have a lot of friends who are not on the spectrum who also do not like going places with excess stimulation either, so for me the key has been to make friends with people who also get as nervous about roller coasters as I do! Getting local support groups going for people on the spectrum to meet each other and find common interests to build social circles is pretty important. We also need to continue to bring awareness to others about how to help a person who is feeling over stimulated. If you can tell that the individual is feeling stressed, calmly remove them from the environment that is causing the over stimulation if possible, to a safe location and let them have a few moments to decompress. If you are friends with a person on the spectrum, ask them beforehand about activities that could potentially cause them anxiety and see if you can find an activity to do together that would be fun for everyone involved.