This post is in the Sensory Issues category

The Suitors- Zen Zen Zo, The Odyssey © C. Baranay 2005

“The Suitors” – Zen Zen Zo, The Odyssey © C. Baranay 2005

Dear Reader

Sensory overload is a common thread in discussions of Asperger’s, both from academics and from first hand accounts.  It is usually described that certain sensory inputs, be it particular sounds or lights or scents become too much and cause a kind of shut down in the brain, some times accompanied by pain. In some cases the person’s senses individually or in combination) stop being processed by the brain – a person can be effectively deafened by bright flashing lights. In other cases the senses become scrambled. Colours change, vision narrows, loud sounds become soft and soft ones loud.  You can find similar descriptions of the effects of migraine headaches.

I know the feeling described above quite well – certain sounds seem to continue in my head after they have stopped being produced, become stretched out and to overlap, each new “entry” accentuates the last until I can hear and see nothing else and have to find a way to break the cycle.  It’s like sound “A” doesn’t “clear” before sound “B” enters.  Some times I can do this by speaking, or shaking my head.  Sometimes I have to remove myself physically.

Unfortunately the sound that has this affect most is that of my children’s voices when they all want to talk at once, like at mealtimes.  I can’t keep up and it becomes intolerable.


I have yet to see another description of the effects of “underload”. I define this as when there is not enough activity going on either internally or externally.  This is when the tides come in.  I’ll try to describe the waters a little better but first, the point is that most of the time I don’t want them.

To keep the tides out I have to be actively thinking, or responding to some kind of stimuli.  If the conversation is not enough (and this is in no way an indictment of the input provided by you, the readers of this blog!) I have to provide more.  So I fidget, read, surf the web, watch TV, hum a melody (either aloud or in my head).  (There is a relationship to “stimming” autistic rocking etc that I’m yet to fully explore.)

If there is no external conversation I make one in my head – and do those other things as well.   If I don’t do this, the oceans come in.

The oceans can begin with an endlessly repeating snatch of speech or a fragment of a song from the radio.  Sounds coming in stay “in” but fragment, like light split by a prism.  Its not like the overload, its fluid and stable, constant and shifting, comforting and frightening, complete and empty.

I have created some pieces that reflect in a limited way this inner music although it was not a deliberate exploration.  The “score” for Mad Hercules is close in many respects. It was created a few years before I knew about Asperger’s and it rather innocently recreates that sound.

“Megara” from Mad Hercules – Queensland Theatre Company 2002

And the oceans of sound that sometimes fill my head and bend and shimmer with the changes of light, warp the sounds of voices around me, obliterate thought and compress and extend time itself – I thought they belonged to everyone.  On occasion when these sounds have found their way through the filters of instruments and computers and software and speakers, I have been surprised to find them not immediately recognised and their meaning familiar.

Here’s a tip.  If you note that I seem to be attending to something else in a class or other situation, fiddling with something, leg shaking etc, I’m not shutting out the conversation (I am listening ) – I’m keeping the tide out and the floodgates shut.

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