^From: Marcus Geduld, 35 years of study in psychology
"I'm on the autism spectrum.
My senses get overwhelmed really easily. Most people associate autism with social problems. For me, as a high-functioning autistic, this means I'm fine one-on-one, but the more people you add into the mix, the more trouble I have. When it gets to party levels, I start panicking, because there's too much social data hitting my senses at once.
This is just as true of other sorts of sensory experiences — non-social ones. I can easily watch TV, but if two TVs were playing in the same room, I'll start to feel panicky. My wife likes to keep the TV on in the background, which is okay. But she sometimes finds a YouTube video that interests her and wants to play it. If she does this without first muting the TV, it's very hard for me. Even though I'm neither interested in the TV nor the video, I can't tune them out.
How difficult is it for me? Imagine someone spitting in your face over and over. It's probably difficult on that level — just the two videos running at once.
I don't have much ability to tune things out or multitask. So I have to attend to everything going on at once, and attending to two things at once feels as if I'm the rope in a game of tug of war. Imagine if, while my wife had on the TV and the video, she also turned on the radio.
When I'm in a stable situation, I can gradually start to tune some things out. So, for instance, if I'm sitting in a room with you, I can get used to the room and stop thinking about it consciously. If, all of the sudden, five dogs run in, I get flooded with sensation. It can easily become too much, and I can "overheat."
Everyone gets flooded with sensation when things change. Change means that the brain can't rely on the "programs" it had been running before the change, and it also can't instantly know which new programs to start running. It is temporarily in a state of confusion, until it's able to pick information out from the noise, tune the noise out, and process what's important. At some level of noise and confusion, everyone becomes like an autistic person. We're just more sensitive, more quickly.
What do you do when you're in a temporary state of confusion? Imagine that, while you were asleep, I transported you to Times Square. You suddenly woke up with bright lights and huge crowds milling about you. You'd probably deal with this by chilling, tuning stuff out, and then gradually letting stuff in. I can't do that. If a bunch of stuff hits me all at once, I can't tune any of it out. I have to deal with it all at once, instantly.
So if you want to understand it viscerally, ask a friend to give you a specific, repetitive task, e.g. carrying spoons from one table to another. Easy.
Then have several other people, standing all around you, start throwing other tasks at you:
"While you're carrying the spoons, hum Twinkle, Twinkle, Little, Star…"
"While you're doing that, pay attention to which hand I'm holding up and shout left or right, each time I switch…"
"While you're doing that, think of random numbers between one and 100, and say a new one every five seconds…"
"Change Twinkle Twinkle Little Star to Three Blind Mice…"
Now imagine that you'll get fired if you screw up. That's often what it feels like: that you'll be judged incompetent at some everyday part of life if you don't attend to all these changes at once.
To not be in a constant state of panic, I have to carefully control my environment: not too much light, not too little light, not too much noise, not too many people talking at once, not too many sudden changes…
As a grownup, I've mastered skills to help me do this. So many, that it's generally hard to tell me from a neuro-typical person. Autistic children have a much harder time. They are constantly thrust into new situations, bombarded with sudden sensory overload, and have no way to cope. When that happens to me, I start to feel like my head is going to explode. If I was five, I'd probably throw a tantrum. At 47, I excuse myself, go to the bathroom, chill out, and then come back when I'm ready."