Recalling an Instance of Extreme Sensory Overload on Vacation

October 18, 2012

I’m one of three autistic members sharing a body.

Being autistic, I often have problems with sensory overload. Loud noise, lots of stuff going on at once….lots of movement, trying to listen to someone and do something else at the same time……it’s hard. And sometimes I exhibit behaviour that is disturbing to others. This happened recently on vacation overseas. I was very overwhelmed already the last full day of vacation, and to top it all off, there was an entire table of noisy kids in the dining hall where I was eating with my family and a couple of our relatives. I sort of threw a fit….after being told several times to go get food, I got up, STOMPED over to the buffet, picked up a plate, walked over to the noodle bin, and took out a huge scoop and slapped them onto my plate in a huff. Then I turned around, STOMPED past where my family was sitting, reached the exit, yelled something to the effect of “finally some peace and QUIET!”, and ran off to find a table far enough away from the dining hall, outside. Then I cried. I was overloaded, disgusted, embarrassed, irritated, all at once.

And then the criticism came. I come from a family of neurotypicals. People who do not have outbursts after the age of 5 just because of loud noises. Basically that’s what my mother told me, that I acted like a young child when I glared at the noisy children and stormed out of the room. This event happened about three years ago, and I can still feel a lump in my throat as I finish writing this post. I can feel the pain in my head and my ears from the auditory assault I faced from the table full of children. I can feel the anxiety spiking. It was through the roof on that evening. I almost feel like crying right now while writing this. I couldn’t possibly think about how my actions would appear to anyone else in the dining area. This was at a hotel in Ladakh, which is a region of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, in extreme Northern India.

I already had a feeling that the criticism would come but I still couldn’t prepare myself for it. All I was able to think about that evening was making sure I remembered to grab food and then GETTING THE HELL OUT OF THERE. AS QUICKLY AS POSSIBLE. I was in tears because I was humiliated. I shouldn’t have been but I was. Probably because we have all grown up learning and hearing that grownups don’t behave like that. Ever. If they do then clearly something is wrong. Well, that much was TRUE! Something was VERY WRONG that night. My ears and brain were brutally violated! But in the neurotypical world that sort of thing doesn’t seem to count.

This is still very difficult for me to think about even 3 years later.

Parents, siblings, relatives, family friends: the next time your autistic child/adult/sibling/relative has a meltdown on vacation, please do consider possible triggers for those meltdowns. Try not to project your feelings of exasperation onto the autistic person. Chances are they are probably feeling poorly enough about the situation as it is. I know I was. I have learned to become pretty hardy over years of action-packed vacations. But we all have our breaking points.



  1. Stanging overload and NTs who are part of the problem. Gagh.

    Last time I had something like that was in a program with Temple University–disabled people learn “advocacy”* skillz.

    Long story short: I arrive a few minutes late** for the buffet dinner & find that everyone has obtained food & gotten seated already. As I took a moment to survey the situation, one of the NT facilitators promptly came up, guided me to the one empty seat, and very kindly asked the table if there was room.

    Fuck that. I was perfectly capable of self-advocacy had I been permitted my moment to process. It felt far better to take my food and eat outside, then accept an NT constantly acting as though I was some sort of incompetent.

    *As in the cringing, thankful “advocacy” that makes the targets feel superior.

    **Chiefly because the program had been torquing me off pretty much each time I went and I needed some time between the seminar & the meal. C2P2-EEL is decidedly NOT autism-friendly.

  2. Just re-read a piece from 2009 & found it relevant: the problem with “age-appropriate” is that the tools to communicate “Those kids are so noisy that I can’t function near them. Evacuating the area accordingly.”…well, aren’t accessible if one can’t function.

    One of the points I tend to hammer on when briefing NTs is that an autie who is overloaded, possibly supercritical*, may not be able to communicate as diplomatically as one might like. The training may exist but the processing power to access and use it…not so much.

    Therefore, those wishing to be supportive really need to receive whatever’s said and do what they can.

    Because emergency venting, no matter how distasteful it may be, is hella preferable to meltdown. Here’s hoping your family doesn’t have to learn that the way some of mine did.

    *Nuclear reactions being “critical” is par for the course, according to a nuclear engineer I read once. If the pile isn’t “critical” nothing nuclear is going on, and the plant isn’t generating power. “Supercritical” is where Bad Things happen.

    • Which post from 2009, C7?

      I can’t remember all of my posts offhand. If you can recall its title that would be most helpful. Was it one of ours or from another blogger?


      • Fairly confident it was one of yours but can’t get a positive ID on it now. Probably the January one, but the 10 July one is relevant too.

        • Okay cool thanks, I will look that one up.


  3. My son struggles with sensory overload as well. He is currently only two at the moment and is still unable to tell me what he is having a problem with. I know you are an adult, but I live in a small community, I would love to hear your take on how to comfort him, help calm him when he has a “melt down”. Its wonderful to see you blogging! Keep it up!!!

    • Well, since he cannot yet communicate to you what he is having difficulty with, you have to “play detective” and watch his actions and movements carefully. If he is in a noisy environment, does he cover his ears or tug at his ears? Does he appear visibly distressed? Does he have an “intense” expression on his face? Do his eyes get “large”? Is he more physically active than usual? Does he try to escape? Does he gravitate towards certain areas of the room? Does he try to make himself “smaller” in order to minimize his overall exposure to the loud noise?

      I plan to write a post with these and other questions that parents can ask themselves, about their autistic children.

      I hope this helps somewhat.


    • I can generate a list of potential sensory violations, if that would be helpful. Let me know.

      (To be clear: not all of us have the same sensory issues, and some autistics actually quite like stimulation that others can’t handle, so any list needs tailoring to the specific autie in question.)

      • Yes, actually that would be really cool! Could you send me the list in an email? And can I use it in a separate blog post? I will give proper credit of course. Thanks!


  4. How do we go from wildfire to new growth? How do we bring happiness out of stress? For families with an autistic child, for an autistic adult, stress can feel insurmountable, a wildfire out of control. But we can apply some principles to go from distress to peace, to realize the full potential of happiness in our lives.

  5. […] Recalling an Instance of Extreme Sensory Overload on Vacation (athenivanidx.wordpress.com) […]

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