Too Much! Neurodivergent Sensory Overload

Written by: Sam Warner
Published on: 27 June 2024
Categories: Neurodiversity

Parents with undiagnosed Neurodivergence

Having discovered that I’m AuDHD late in life (I’m 51 and found out when I was 35 years old) I didn’t know that most of the other people around me were not experiencing sensory overload in the same way as I was.  It didn’t help that I grew up in a slightly unusual household, both my parents being neurodivergent (but didn’t know it of course).  They were both sensitive to sounds, smells, taste, touch, movement and light.

I have memories of my Father in particular struggling with me sitting on the floor in front of him whilst watching TV.  I am a fidget and rarely sit still for long, or I am often to be found doing something else like cross-stitch at the same time as watching.  The movement really annoyed him and I was told to sit still or leave the room as there was no-where in the room I could sit away from his peripheral vision.  I simply can’t sit still so I spent many hours in our kitchen watching our little black and white portable TV on my own instead.

My Father also had a hard time with strong smells.  Garlic was banned from the house, as was perfume, and air fresheners.  One quick sniff of my teenage clothes would inform my Dad if I’d had a sneaky cigarette on the way home.

I remember my Father getting really angry when a car engine could be heard idling for a few minutes late one night right outside our house, he put his dressing gown on, went outside and asked them to either turn the engine off or leave!

“My Neurodivergence has got more noticeable for me as I have got older”

My tolerance for these things has got progressively worse as I’ve got older.  I might even say like Father like Daughter in some cases.  Where I might have thought Dad’s reaction to the car engine was over-the-top at the time, when I have the same situation before me I feel that rush of anger after only a few seconds, so I totally get it. He was actually being restrained! As I have moved into peri-menopause, my ADHD mask especially, has slipped and that can make me appear erratic, possibly even manic at times.

The problem for me is when several senses are overloaded simultaneously.  This poses a problem because I need to withdraw, regroup and make sense of the situations one by one before I’m back to an operational state.

I’ll give you an example.  Parking the car. It’s not a particularly hot day but it’s warm enough that as I’m trying to figure out the best space to go in (which can take me a while as I wrestle with the decisions about whether the space is large enough, am I too close to the next car, do I need to get into my boot, do I need to pay?) I get agitated and start to feel hot (touch/temperature), and I turn the radio off because it’s wittering on and adding to my discomfort (sound), then it might be really bright today or there’s a reflection from a window that blinds me for a moment (sight).  At the same time some twit walks behind the car as I’m reversing into a space. (sight)….Meltdown!

Here’s how my Neurodivergence affects how I react to senses:

Taste – I have very sensitive taste buds.  My poor hubby loves spices and heat and “exciting’ food, but I’m happy with very simple food because I enjoy all the subtle and delicate flavours. I really struggle with strong flavours and cannot do chillies or garam masala. I also have trouble with certain textures but maybe this is more like a touch sensitivity?

Touch – Being too hot or too cold is difficult.  I can equate it to if you really need to pee, it’s all you can think about, nothing else matters.  That’s what it’s like for me in extremes of temperature.  But I am careful not to inflict my temperature issues on others, I wear extra thermals, grab a hot water bottle, or grab an icepack to go on my pulse points rather than throw open windows or put on the heating to affect others around me. I like to be hugged by people I want to hug. But if someone is idly fiddling with my arm or leg or something I’d have to ask them to stop. If someone was kicking my chair or tapping their leg and shaking the floor, I’d have to ask them stop before I got really really angry. (I don’t turn into the Hulk but it’s not pretty.)

Sound – I have a lot of trouble with repetitive music or music without a clear tune (e.g. interpretive jazz), running engines, hammering, fireworks, very loud noises frighten me, (e.g. balloons popping) garden strimmers, drilling, cutlery on china, and repetitive clicking when playing a video game.  Some of these are tolerable if it’s me doing the activity e.g. drilling and hammering, but I’ll often have my earbuds in playing some music instead.  Just because I’m a walking contradiction I love really loud music when it’s tunes I love.  I’m a rock fan, especially prog-rock band Muse and their concerts are REALLY LOUD!  Hand dryers in toilets hurt so much I have to rush out of the Ladies to get away from it.  It’s like a slap in the face. I don’t know why – maybe it’s a control thing.

Sight – I’m not a fan of strobe lights, and the similar effect you get when driving past a lot of trees with the sun low in the sky.  Bright lights are challenging, but needed in a room when I’m vacuuming! I have trouble with fluorescent lights that flicker, it’s almost impossible for me to concentrate on anything else and I usually have to leave the room. I can liken it to someone poking me in the eye repeatedly. Some colours when put together really “do my head in” to coin a phrase, and I have to look away.  Very fast action in some films I can’t watch -it’s an overload.

Smell – If someone smells bad (food related, or body odour or smoke on their clothes) I can’t concentrate on the conversation because the smell is too ‘loud” in my head. I have to step back or try to give myself another smell, perhaps put some perfume on my collar and turn my head, or try to breathe through my mouth. I’m attracted to nice smells like everyone else. I have two cats so I have to make sure the house is clean because I can smell even quite subtle smells and then I can’t think about anything else if they are unpleasant.

Environment – I’m not great with crowds, despite putting up with it for Muse concerts, I feel overwhelmed by sounds and smells and voices.  I don’t feel safe and I become very timid and childlike it its really busy.  I avoid going to Christmas fayres in cities, or just cities unless it’s a very brief visit, and not on a weekend. I even stay in my seat at concerts until everyone else has gone or we are ushered out of our seats so that I can hang back and let everyone else go head of me.

I know we all react differently to different things in different situations, but it would be really cool if people who are unaffected by this kind of sensitivity were caring and understanding to those who are.

Empathy is hard to force if you just don’t “get it” but it’s within everyone’s personal control to decide how to respond to someone who is obviously having a hard time – it doesn’t matter why they are having a hard time or whether we can relate to it. We can just be kind and offer help and support.

“Do you know anyone who has sensory sensitivity?  Could they be Neurodivergent? Are you sympathetic to their reactions?”

About Sam Warner

Hi I'm Sam Warner. Neurodivergent Communications Specialist supporting you to Get Your Message Across. Welcome to my blog.


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