As an Autistic, I start each day with a small cool bag of popcorn kernels. I am hopefully rested from sleep but if not one or two of my kernels is already warming and quivering. A small amount of agitation is not necessarily going to cook me, but I feel wobbly enough that I must begin to regulate my state of mind. The day has just begun. Inevitably I will face pressure from socializing, doing too much, the annoyance of something not going to plan, having to transition from one thing to another, sensory overload, hyper-empathy, overthinking, forgetting something I should know and on and on. Each time I face a new trial my bag of kernels shivers and quakes. Some kernels pop and cannot be recovered, some bounce erratically but can be soothed and other kernels stay blessedly at rest for a time. However, on many occasions, the whole bag is in danger of going nuclear.
Sunday evening, I am returning from the choir with a million thoughts racing through my mind. “Did it go okay?” “What could I have done better?” “Was that note off?” Normally I relax a lot more when I sing but I wasn’t just singing today, I was filling in as director. “Did I communicate okay?” “Did I confuse anyone?” Even though I know the night went well, my brain is doing what it must do: running the course, filing away the night's fact and figures for future reference. Euphoria is beginning to creep in. It feels like a tingling sensation beginning at the base of my spine. My sensory feedback sharpens to the feel of the cold January wind, the continual banter between my two sons and the streetlights setting the snow a sparkle. By the time I arrive home after the three-minute walk, I can feel my inner excitement threatening to burst out my nostrils. My kernels are at the height of their popping cycle, threatening to spill on the floor. It’s surprising how often and how easily this happens.
Overwhelm, both positive and negative is a fact of artistic life. We generally navigate and process more than the average individual. Our sensory inputs can be heightened or alternatively dulled forcing us to strain to collect information. We may have hyper-empathy, perceiving other people’s emotions too strongly mingling with our own personal emotions, usually in overdrive as well. To top that off, performing simple tasks may require more energy, partly because our short-term memories and motor skills can be faulty. The strain of trying to lead a quality so called “normal” life is enough to pop all the kernels twice over.
Many autistics will attempt to mask their overwhelming emotions. It would be like trying to blow some cold air over the hot pot of corn and oil, you may reduce the cooking time but the heat is still shuddering the grains. Surprisingly many behavioral therapies for autism focus on teaching how to mask. This is unfortunate because masking is a temporary fix. It does not eliminate the feelings of overwhelming and eventually, most likely in adulthood, autistics face burnout from the exhaustion of living an unauthentic lifestyle.
Prevention and reduction of overwhelm are better approaches to living a balanced life and avoiding a nuclear popcorn catastrophe! Everyone is different but here are some goodies that have helped me:
1: Fidget tools/toys
There are so many of these, something for everyone! They are especially useful for distraction, meditation, and sensory therapy. Squeezable toys release energy. Toys with repetitive actions such as zips, buttons or spinners are calming and reduce distraction by allowing some people to think more clearly. Puzzles can busy the mind away from stressful thought and throw and catch items assist with energy release through exercise.
2: Surgical Brushes, Massage Tools or Textured Fidgets
I am sensory seeking and when to overwhelm is heightened I also get very squirmy, so much so that I can awaken at night with restless legs and shoulders. Brushing my limbs with a surgical brush helps desensitize my skin. Massage tools help by offering deep pressure relief. Textured fidgets like the spiky balls can be used as massage tools or rolled on the skin for desensitization. Do what feels good and never force yourself to do a therapy that doesn’t feel good to you.
Sometimes if I am exploding with euphoria I will envision myself running super speed around a racetrack. It seems to help. Other people may have other tricks that work to calm the body by meditating on an outlet for your energy or a calming environment.
4: Take a Break (or in extreme cases Shutdowns)
Allowing time without the pressure of overwhelm is a must! Hopefully, breaks can be scheduled into your daily routine. Alternatively, autistics may involuntarily go into shutdown. A shutdown may render the individual speechless (selective mutism), unable to take in information of any kind, such as the content of a conversation or unable to project emotion (which helped spark the myth that we have no empathy). Shutdowns are extreme but may prevent a complete meltdown from occurring. Shutdowns can be seconds to days in length.
5: Diaphragm Breathing
Breathing is well known as a calming technique. This type of breathing comes from taking deep breaths from your stomach as opposed to shallow ones from your chest. Lie on your back with your hands on your tummy by the belly button. You should feel your stomach rise and fall with each breath. With practice, you can do this technique in a sitting and standing position for quick relief when you are out on the go.
Reducing stress and sensory overwhelm is essential. As an adult, I have worked on this by literally reducing how many things I own so there is less clutter in my environment.
Choose something you love to do, run, jump, flap, dance, play catch, get that energy out in any way you can. Have fun with it. Be careful not to overdo it and always consult your doctor to determine if there are any concerns physically.
Finding ways to regulate overwhelm is essential to living a balanced autistic lifestyle, so we can enjoy that big bowl of fluffy, salted popcorn while keeping our own kernels safely in check.
I’d love to hear if you have any other ideas to regulate spikes of overwhelming. Or tell me about your favorite fidget! Leave a comment for Happy Hands Toys down below or reach me personally on Twitter, YouTube or Instagram:
@BiteSmaller - small nibbles for a balanced life.