Managing Sensory Overload in High School
There has probably been at least a thousand people who have wondered what goes through the mind of someone with autism while he/she is in high school. The only thing most teen students on the spectrum could agree on is that it overflows into way too much junk in our heads. I don’t mean “junk” as in homework, I mean it as in sensory challenges, though those two words are not enough to describe what we are actually going through.
When a student with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) enters the school building after having a good morning, he/she usually feels fine. As he/she walks through the hallways, he/she hears peers talking, pens scribbling, pages turning, lockers banging, and so many more sounds that seem like they are at the exact same volume.
We also deal with bright lights and girls who appear to bathe in perfume. It gets trapped in our heads and builds up as the day goes along. The longer we hold all that tension inside our heads, the worse we feel. Some things that help me include wearing noise-canceling headphones and trying to avoid the crowd by taking routes most people usually don’t if and when possible.
Once in class, it is hard to pick up on what the instructor is saying because the sounds from walking through the halls echo in our minds. It’s similar to when a song gets stuck in your head, but instead of music, it’s random things. It may not be that way for everyone, but it is for me and other people on the spectrum I’ve talked to about it. In my case, it causes me to have a difficult time with receptiveness. I have a good memory but when it comes to school, I may need to be reminded how to do a simple math problem. Have you ever had to clarify instructions for a loved one?
By rephrasing what was said I don’t mean doing it right over my shoulder. I heard there is an unwritten rule about how it’s important to give people personal space. This should apply to teachers too. I’d like to be able to stretch my arms out without smacking my teachers in the face. It does help when it gets taught to me independently, but only if it’s from a certain distance. Sitting across from me is way more comfortable than sitting right next to me.
I had an instructor one time who was much appreciated for taking me to a septate classroom and teaching the material to me individually at the front of the room as if there was a whole class. Maybe this is a technique you could consider if it hasn’t been used already.
You could also try to write down the steps for students so they can have a visual. I have my class schedule on the front sleeve of my binder along with the times I have to be in certain places. Auditory instructions are a struggle for me and many others, so doing this makes me feel less confused and more confident about going to school five days a week.
Another visual I have is a card that helps me communicate with my teachers by telling them when I need breaks. It has a picture on it and text that says that I need to step out of the classroom. All I do is put it on my desk or show them the card. Every once in a while, when I’m under a lot of stress, I quit talking, so it’s easier for me to communicate with something I can see.
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No matter what teachers do to help make things easier for us we still often get overwhelmed. Flapping our hands and/or rocking back and forth may help us stay relaxed for a longer period of time because it feels nice and distracts us from everything that’s going on. Sometimes if we don’t do things like that, the meltdowns we have later on can turn into thunderstorms.
Most of my stimming happens in P.E. class. There are a lot of echoes, balls flying everywhere, and shoes squeaking. Everyone’s spread out and yelling. This makes it harder for the coach to have a clear idea of what’s happening, so if you’re different you are guaranteed to get picked on. Some of my worst moments of school occur in the gym. The last time I had a class in there I tried to force myself not to get stressed, but that didn’t go over very well. I ended up collapsing on the floor and the school called an ambulance thinking I was having a stroke or some other severe health issue. That mental thunderstorm caused a lot of damage to the rest of my month.
After that incident, I wrote a mental note to myself reminding me to stim. It can help us release anxiety. If you care for someone on the spectrum make sure to let him/her continue at least some of his/her repetitive behaviors, preferably ones that are safe and quiet. You may even have to remind him/her about them if he/she hasn’t done it in a while.
You don’t want him/her to end up having a meltdown or getting rushed to the hospital. If he/she has stims that are disruptive, try taking him/her to a more private location or giving him/her a limit. When he/she claps his/her hands loudly, say things like “only five more claps for now.” If he/she is hurting himself/herself or others, you should help him/her find a different coping mechanism. For example, if he/she is hitting other students, teach him/her to hit a pillow instead.
Lunchtime is another part of my school routine that is not very pleasant because once you set foot in the cafeteria it’s nearly impossible to avoid getting touched. Many of the autistic individuals I know don’t like physical contact. I understand because when someone puts his/her hand on me, I can still feel it after it’s long gone. Sometimes instead of having my meals in the cafeteria, I eat them sitting on the floor as far from the crowd as I can get. It’s usually next to a trash bin but it’s better than feeling trapped in a herd of teenagers.
When I do eat in the cafeteria, I feel the best when sitting at a table up against the wall with not too many people sharing it. I find it bothersome when too many people are at one table because it makes me feel squished. Walls on the other hand act like shields, making it so no one can run into me from that side of the room. I also like sitting with my friend because when I focus on him it helps distract me from everything else going on around me.
For the most part, I enjoy high school. I like being in a routine and learning new things. There are people there that care about me and want to help me succeed, which I am thankful for. So even though sensory challenges are a big part of it for those on the spectrum, we all seem to get through it by using several coping mechanisms. After all, we do have the ability to let our tension out by stimming and having meltdowns. They help us in the long run with our mental health. Once we start high school, we’ve already endured a countless number of sensory overload episodes, so it’s not completely new to us. It’s just a more advanced section in the autism life.
This article was featured in Issue 102 – Supporting ASD Needs Everyday