The word “overstimulation” is a word not listed in standard dictionaries. However, this less well-known word in the lives of people with autism is a condition that causes stress to form at the highest level.
Overstimulation is the exposure to excessive stimulation in the shortest term. It is the case where some external stimuli are “too much” for an individual’s brain to function and integrate effectively. Too many stimuli are exposed to a person’s life. This can lead to the urge to escape the stimulus, to cry, or to scream. Overstimulation is a kind of a pain in the lives of individuals with autism.
Overstimulation occurs when individuals are exposed to more stimuli (sound, image, light, crowd, movement, activity) than they can handle. For example, a newborn baby may begin to cry after a family gathering where many adults are cuddling around. A kid going to kindergarten may start whining after a loud and crowded birthday party. Or a child who goes to another course right after school may lose motivation.
No one knows exactly why individuals with autism are so overstimulated by experiences that neurotypical individuals find feasible. Hypersensitivity and inefficiency at brain levels may cause this result. Stress is the psychological consequence of this neurological vulnerability. A person who is overstimulated by overstimulation is in a constant state of overstimulation and waits for the next unforeseen event to overwhelm him.
When individuals with autism are overstimulated they feel overwhelmed and tired. In these cases, their eruption means defense, not a challenge. As a result, it is important for parents to know that the best thing for their children is to spend some time in a friendly and calm environment. What should be considered is the correct perception by the parent of the distress caused by overstimulation. For this reason, it is very important for parents to know the signs of overstimulation.
Parents can also find out what and how much your child with autism can handle. While some individuals with autism do not have trouble with external arousal, others need a quieter environment. The formula is to determine what works best for your child. Thus, you can establish a healthy balance of arousal and rest.
Most individuals with autism are familiar with sensory overstimulation, but there are other types. Types of overstimulation are counted as sensory overstimulation, emotional overstimulation, intellectual overstimulation, and social overstimulation.
Sensory overstimulation, as the name suggests, is triggered by hypersensitive senses. It is impossible for these individuals to relax their bodies, even when they are subjected to a sensory attack, or even if they may be exposed at any time. It is unlikely that individuals with autism, like neurotypical individuals, will react calmly to such stimuli. These individuals are constantly tense and aroused.
Their most sensitive feelings are often sound. They are often extremely sensitive to sound and overstimulated by sound. Even the sound of motorcycles and airplanes, vehicles honking their horns, sirens of police cars and ambulances, the noise of construction machinery, music shops, trams, or even the mechanical sound of traffic lights cause individuals with autism to be over-stimulated and overly disturbed. This stimulus is even combined with stimuli for other senses. For example, bright sunlight, cigarette smoke, or impenetrable crowds. The sensory attack of everyday city life can become torture for individuals on the spectrum of autism.
Individuals with autism often find it difficult to understand what the individuals around them feel. This is caused by a communication disorder exhibited by the brain of an individual with an autism spectrum disorder. This communication disorder occurs between the limbic system, the region where our emotions arise, and the prefrontal cortex, the region where we become conscious. The connection between these two regions is weakened. Therefore, individuals with autism also have great difficulties in expressing their feelings.
So it can be considered almost paradoxical that many individuals with autism experience their emotions with tremendous power and speed. Tidal waves of emotions can hit perishable obstacles unexpectedly and in an unidentified way. An individual with autism may experience outbursts of anger or bouts of crying if they are sensually overstimulated and their emotional reservoir is full. Perhaps individuals with autism may not be able to regulate their emotions easily because they cannot easily access them.
Emotional overstimulation can also be caused by any everyday occurrence. A horror movie, a sad book, an intense psychotherapy session, a disturbing lecture, or a nervous talk can over-stimulate individuals with autism. Even joy, if unexpected, can cause individuals with autism to become overwhelmed and over-stimulated. All these situations cause individuals with autism to be quite reluctant to experience any emotions. Many people with autism prefer to examine and discuss objective and factual information rather than emotional issues.
The minds of individuals with autism are always in motion and they tend to think things all the time. Such active minds can accumulate extraordinary amounts of factual information and develop their analytical abilities very well. But besides that, they can over stimuli themselves with irrelevant details.
The inability to focus on important details prevails in the intellectual life of many individuals with autism. The poor execution functionality they have only caused their problems to become more complex. They face serious difficulties when it comes to prioritization and organizing. For example, while a neurotypical individual does not pay attention to the page numbers of the textbook while studying for an exam, the individual with autism thinks that he has to memorize and classify all pages. This situation is overly stimulating and interrupts their lives.
Social overstimulation is a combination of all the overstimulation it could be exposed to. It is filled with social interactions, exchange of information, ever-changing verbal emotional messages and sensory experiences, loud voices, and the occasionally forced hug. All of this causes individuals with autism to experience overstimulation.
The multimodal nature of social relationships is an extremely challenging structure for individuals with autism. There are too many stimuli to be processed at the same time. These interactions, which are intuitive for most neurotypical individuals, can cause individuals with autism to feel overstimulated and dizzy.
What Are the Symptoms of Overstimulation?
While common symptoms of overstimulation can vary from child to child, there are other general principles, including crying, moodiness, nervous breakdowns, and even larger outbursts. When children with autism are overstimulated, they may be more excited, aggressive, or active. Or, on the contrary, they may be withdrawn, distant from people, or be sleepy. Keep in mind that children with overstimulated autism don’t know how to deal with their feelings. They also do not have sufficient communication skills to convey their troubles. So they react with mischief or silence, which is the only way they know.
Overstimulation in Babies with Autism
If your child is overstimulated, you may experience the following behaviors:
- Looking very cranky or tired
- Cry more than usual
- Not making eye contact with you
- Clenching fists, swinging arms, and legs
Overstimulation in Toddlers or Kindergarten Children with Autism
When your child is overstimulated, you can confuse it with an age-related problematic behavior or a reaction he or she is getting upset. As a result, it’s important to know what it’s like to be overstimulated at this age. Symptoms of overstimulation in children with autism who are crawling or attending kindergarten include:
- Looking tired, moody, and sad
- Crying all the time without using words to describe their feelings
- Throwing themselves down with nerves and tears
- Refusing small things like fastening a seat belt or picking up something that falls on the floor
Overstimulation in Children with Autism Going to School
It is easier to identify overstimulation in older children with autism because they can tell you what went wrong. However, knowing what overstimulation looks like at this age can help. For example, overstimulation in a school-going child may include the following characteristics:
- Act differently than they normally do
- Being aggressive or angry
- Being angry or too grumpy
- Acting or running around for no reason
- Looking sleepy or too tired
Keeping Your Child With Autism Away From Overstimulation
The best way to help your child cope with overstimulation is to learn how they respond to different sensory stimuli. Knowing this will help you avoid overstimulation and mischief in your child. This is especially important for babies who are completely unaware of coping methods. As your children grow, you can help them cope by teaching them techniques like breathing, walking, lying on the grass, or focusing on things that relax them. Another technique for older children can be any slow and regular exercise that stimulates their muscles.
There is no correct answer to how much arousal is too much because every child is different. So the amount of stimulation one child can handle will be different for another child. In addition, some children cope better than others. As a result, it is best for your child to guide you. Doing everything in the middle is the key point.
Responses of Individuals with Autism to Sensory Stimuli
Reactions to Auditory Stimuli: There are many different reactions to sounds during this period. The fact that children do not react to sounds at all causes many parents to go to the doctors for hearing problems. Tests show that children with autism do not have an organic problem in their hearing. Indeed, it is observed that they sometimes do not react to voices at all, and sometimes they are very sensitive to some voices that they overreact to the smallest sounds.
Reactions to Visual Stimuli: During this period, abnormal reactions to visual stimuli are common. Although they do not look at human faces and many objects around them, they may stare at objects that are moving, rotating, or bright for a very long time and maybe overstimulated.
Reactions Against Pain, Hot, and Cold: These reactions may appear in the form of not realizing the pain, heat, and cold in some children, while in others they may be seen as crying while washing their hands with cold water and screaming when a pin is inserted in their hand.
Problems with Sense of Touch
Although individuals with autism react very differently to the sensory stimuli in their environment, it has been observed that they try to discover a new object in the form of touching, sniffing, sometimes taking it in the mouth, or licking it by moving their fingers over it.
Individuals with autism sometimes like to be touched and sometimes to be touched. Sometimes they are overly stimulated and avoided from both situations. A light touch can scare some of them. When someone wants to be touched or held, pushing or running away from that person is a common reaction. While these individuals are afraid of such a small touch, they may remain unresponsive to painful situations.
These reactions may appear in the form of not realizing the pain, heat, and cold in some individuals with autism, while others may be seen as crying while washing their hands with cold water or screaming when a pin is stuck in their hands. The reason for this is a disorder in the body’s own morphine system called the “opioid” system in individuals with autism.
In some individuals, they may strongly avoid wearing knitted clothing and self-grooming activities. Some people with autism hate feeling on clothes, especially shoes and socks, because of a malfunction in the morphine system. Dr. Temple Grandin, who has autism, wrote in a book that a starched skirt she wore in her childhood felt like barbed wire. This is probably why some young children with autism take off their clothes, or at least shoes and socks, whenever they get the chance.
Problems with the Deep Sense System (Proprioceptive system)
The deep sensory system covers joint, muscle, and body awareness. Individuals with impairments in these systems often experience deficiencies in large muscle and small muscle skills. These skills are disorders that fall within the deep sensory system. Many people with autism do not know where their bodies are in space. As such, they may find jumping or swinging on a trampoline relaxing. Others like massage and deep pressure. These activities help them stay motivated and organize themselves before they learn a skill.
Since the years when autism was first defined, problems related to sensory and perceptual response to voice have been identified in individuals with autism. The specified abnormalities are non-responsiveness to sound, a dominant inability on auditory stimuli and visual stimuli, delay in the processes of transmitting the heard stimulus to the brain and response of the brain to the stimulus, the inability to adjust the reception of sounds and as a result of their excessive stimulation.
The fact that individuals with autism, who show very different reactions to sounds, do not react to certain sounds in early childhood, leads many parents to think that their children have hearing problems. Individuals with autism may appear to be deaf when observed from the outside. They may not even react to their own name. In the studies conducted in this area, it has been determined that individuals with autism cannot choose the sounds in crowded areas and are uncomfortable with these environments.
Hearing tests have shown that individuals with autism have normal hearing abilities, but have problems perceiving complex sounds such as speech sounds. Some individuals with autism do not pay attention to speech voices, they can express their desires with gestures and objects. These individuals’ problems with hearing are related to both the perception of words and the pitch and tone of speech.
Significant visual problems have been identified in some individuals with autism. Individuals with autism who have intense communication problems may sometimes act as if they do not see. The function of the eyes and retinas of these individuals is generally normal. These people pass the eye assessment exams. The problem arises from the transmission of visual information to the brain.
It is also known that individuals with autism can look at moving, rotating, and bright objects for a long time, although they do not look at the human face and many objects around it. Some of them appear to be disturbed by the light from time to time, or even more comfortable in a dark room. Individuals with autism may close their ears when exposed to light and close their eyes when they hear a loud noise.
- Visual problems observed in individuals with autism;
- Poor eye contact
- Watching looking sideways
- Be distracted by a light
Emotional Reactions to Overstimulation
Special Fears: A little girl who is afraid of not washing in the bathtub because she burns her hand in hot water in the bathtub or a child who refuses to wear shoes because a shoe squeezes her foot are examples of children with autism with special fears.
Awareness of Dangers: Children with autism are often unaware of the dangers around them, which is one of the most worrisome features for their parents.
Laughing and Crying for No Reason: Emotional reactions that are inappropriate to the situation can occur for no reason. It is thought that behaviors such as laughing, shouting, and crying that an individual with autism shows when he or someone else is punished, is due to their inability to evaluate their environment and situation.
Overreacting to Changes: Situations such as the arrival of a guest at home, arranging their room in a different order, or changing the bed sheet that they use constantly can cause the person with autism to be restless, cry for hours, or have tantrums. After the necessary interventions and treatments, the problems experienced in such situations may end or be minimized.
Special Skills: Perhaps the most surprising characteristics of individuals with autism are the special skills they have in some areas. Many individuals with autism are seen to sing before they speak. Some may even play an instrument better than an artist who has been trained for years. Some parents also state that their children have a strong memory as well as musical skills. They often tell that their children do not forget a place they went to years ago and a special item in that place, can memorize very long poems, or repeat a very long speech that they listened to on TV.
Switching to Early Reading (Hyperlexia): Generally, early reading (hyperlexia) can be seen among individuals with high-functioning autism. Some children with autism can start reading before speaking, recognize numbers, and even develop their ability to understand what they read after the studies.
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