• Understanding Autism from the Inside

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High Functioning My Ass-perger’s Part II: Massive Sensory Overload and Major Meltdown

Is it sensory overload, executive dysfunction, or plain old Stress?

Lately I have been trying to figure myself out—again. The more I learn about Autism and how my brain works, the more I understand why I have difficulties in certain areas. I feel like I have the most difficulty keeping up with the business of everyday living.
The housework, the kids, homework, getting to school on time, paying the bills—Did I mention paying the bills?
These are the things that appear to be easy for everyone else in the world, but I can’t manage them! I look around at other women who have their homes in order and feel ashamed. This has been a tremendous source of self-loathing and guilt my entire life…
I’ve been trying to look at myself through different eyes since I’ve discovered my Asperger’s may be the culprit. I have been trying to figure out a way for me to do what I am good at and compensate for what I am not. In this way, maybe, I can begin to feel worthwhile, and forgive myself for being unable. I haven’t succeeded—not yet anyway.

Hire Help!

Hiring someone to handle the financing, someone else to deep clean the house once a week, and putting the baby in daycare for a couple of days per week sounds like the solution, but unfortunately, I cannot afford such luxuries.
I’m angry that I have been trying to balance a budget, stay out of debt, and get ahead financially for years only now to realize that I may be working toward and impossible goal. Dishes, laundry, cooking, cleaning, homework, car pools, doctor appointments, dental cleanings, oil changes, and anything that requires regular maintenance is damned near impossible for me to master. Is this an executive functioning issue? I think so, but it is more than that.
None of these things are narrowly focused and task oriented. They all call out to me at once, don’t take turns speaking or wait in line. They all need my attention—NOW! And, now I’m overloaded.
The tasks act very much like all the sensory stimuli that causes an overload, and the end result often the same—OVERLOAD = HELPLESSNESS = MELTDOWN = ANGER = LOSS OF CONTROL AND/OR OPTIMAL PERFORMANCE AND ABILITIES.

Sensory Overload

I experienced this last night: sensory overload when trying to accomplish budgeting and paying bills. There were too many bills, too little money, and they all needed my attention—NOW!
My famous foot-flapping began followed by my hand, and the headache. A headache that felt like a sweatband two sizes too small was wrapped around my forehead.  I felt dizzy, the room spun—mayday; it was near crash time.
I was either going to meltdown or shutdown, but one thing is for sure, something was coming. Colors meshed into one another. I looked down at my black flip flops and watched it blur out of focus. The straps melted into the black rubber leaving only a black puddle on the floor.
“Crap!” I don’t think my words were audible.

“My husband was talking but I couldn’t hear the words.”

My head felt heavy, my body weighted down as if under a thick heavy wet blanket. Sleep—I need sleep. My husband was talking but I didn’t hear the words.
After staring at him and trying to figure out what he was saying, I asked him to stop speaking, and start over. He did. Three times I made him stop and start over to tell me what he was saying from the beginning, until finally I gave up. I could not hear his words; they were not processing.
I heard sounds, and parts of words like when someone is talking to you on a cellphone and every other syllable is cutting in and out. That is what I was “hearing,” and worse I couldn’t make out a single sentence.

Selective Mutism

Panicked I tried to articulate, but my words caught in my throat. I golf ball sized lump held back the words… (not a physical lump). Selective Mutism is what they call it, when you cannot talk for a time.  I hate that term—I didn’t friggin select this!
When the words finally stuttered out they were jumbled. This is one of my classic signs of severe overload.  The jumbling words—I will mean to ask for a banana, and the word orange will come out. Or, I’ll say, “I want to finish my hot dog.” But I was eating a pork chop. Yes—both of these are real examples that have happened. It seems to me that my overloaded brain is pulling words from a familiar filing cabinet drawer (bananas and oranges are both fruit, and hot dogs and pork chops both meat), but then it is selecting the wrong word. In my mind I am thinking “banana” but my mouth says “orange” anyway. Why this happens is a mystery to me.
Finally hubby grabbed a pen and wrote down (IN EXTRA LARGE LETTERS) what he was trying to tell me.  He wanted me to go and lie down. I, of course, stubbornly didn’t want to. I wanted to record what was happening. He handed me a pen and this is what I wrote:
adult asperger's meltdowns and sensory overload

Words…jumbled…some spelled incorrectly…

My fine motor skills were “off” because the writing looks like a child wrote it.  And my husband says this was the third attempt and the first two were illegible.  Incidentally, the motor skills get this way when I am overloaded and can manifest itself by my taking turns a bit too wide when I am driving, bumping the curb with my back tire and having to reposition the van several times when I am trying to get straight into a parking space. Maybe that is more perception or depth perception?
I spent the rest of the evening, at least two hours, trying to calm down. I tinkered on the computer, read a book for a while, and tried desperately to remain isolated (ear plugs in, of course).
In the end, I did not completely regain control over my sensory processing. My speech was “off”, the dark room was too bright, and the blood rushing through my ears too loud. Even my taste buds were wrong because simple buttered crackers tasted funny.

Rest and Re-boot

Finally, I gave up, took 800mg of Motrin for my aching neck and head, and 5mg of Melatonin to try to fall asleep in the hopes that sleep would allow my body to re-boot before morning. It didn’t, not completely. This may be an overload meltdown that will take a few days to normalize from, but at least now I partially have my answer. These particular tasks, the ones which overwhelm, actually over stimulate and ultimately overload me. The result: Massive Sensory Overload and Major Meltdown.
Simply telling me that I must try harder and do better in these areas is like asking me to run down the block with no leg, and then chastising me for not getting there fast enough! Had I been in a wheelchair no one would ask me to run down the block, but because my difficulties are mostly “invisible” and I look “normal” I am expected to run. After all…“Asperger’s is mild high-functioningform of Autism.” Isn’t it???


Jeannie Davide-Rivera

Jeannie is an award-winning author, the Answers.com Autism Category Expert, contributes to Autism Parenting Magazine, and the Thinking Person's Guide to Autism. She lives in New York with her husband and four sons, on the autism spectrum.