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Prevent Overwhelm

Updated: Sep 30, 2023

Black and white spiral graphic representing sensory overwhelm

Overwhelm can be a difficult state for anyone to reach, but for autistics, it can be outright dangerous.

Picture “autistic overwhelm,” and you’re probably thinking of a child screaming in terror when a sudden noise – a siren, horn or alarm – flares loudly nearby. But my experience is different.

Sure, I’m bothered by itchy clothing, and I have trouble focusing on a conversation when another conversation is within earshot. But I generally like loud music, bright sunlight and even fireworks. Sensory overload didn’t seem to be a problem for me, and yet I could feel acutely what autistics described when they talked about it. How?

I began to suspect that “sensory” goes way beyond the traditional five senses, and it didn’t take long before I discovered I was right: When I learned about Dr. Dan Siegel’s Wheel of Awareness, my world came into focus.

My autistic overwhelm exists on the level of interoception, mental activity and empathy – the sixth, seventh and eighth senses on the Wheel of Awareness. Not many people are talking about these extra senses in the context of neurodivergence.

  • If you're like me, you digest information on multiple levels of processing all at once. You're planning ahead, working through a problem from yesterday, sensing what you’re feeling, listening to the conversation at-hand and noticing that a glass on the table needs a coaster underneath it.

I can focus my attention to consciously block a lot of the stimuli, and I can even dissociate on command, but my unconscious misses nothing. And that’s how I escalate toward overwhelm. Add in background noise, flashing lights or an itchy sweater and I’ll propel toward a meltdown fast.

Thanks to my autism diagnosis, I now accept that overwhelm is a real and present threat. I now understand that it’s worth preventing at any cost because for folks like me, overwhelm can spiral toward self-harm or even suicidal ideations.

Once the world starts spinning too fast, it feels impossible to escape.

How to lessen overwhelm

I’ve been addicted to to-do lists since my teens. I used to believe I could make anything happen just by putting it on my list. For years, I actually did make it all happen. But in my mid-30s, the tasks started growing bigger than could readily be finished in a day, week or month. I didn’t take the hint, and by my late-30s, I burned out.

For a while, I tried living without a to-do list, but I wasted a lot of time feeling lost. So I started keeping a to-do list again, but with a new rule:

Only fill up 50% of the lines on any given day with tasks you have to do. Leave the other half to fill in retrospectively with tasks that organically arise or things you feel inspired to do spontaneously.

This method has been a productive compromise that both moves me forward and opens up more space. Best? For the first time in my life, I’m giving myself credit for doing the things I love to do, not just my obligations.

Has it eliminated overwhelm in my life? Not entirely. But it is a huge step in a healthier direction, and I recommend it to anyone who feels like their to-do list is their worst enemy.

Other tips

1. Thanks to the pandemic, many of us got a taste of how much overwhelm goes away when you can work from home. I now refuse to pick up the old commute-office-networking lifestyle again. Work from home is my new necessity, and only by owning my own business can I keep that promise to myself. (Being a business owner can be super overwhelming too, but it is still more manageable than office life.)

2. This year, I took up walking, and it is an amazing way to clear headspace. I’ve already written about it, but I highly recommend walking as a way to radically change your life.

3. I also have a lot to say about the benefits of hiring a personal coach. I’m an overnight convert to the entire industry! But I’ll save that rave for another day.

What’s next?

Because of my autism diagnosis, I’m now obsessed with learning about the brain and nervous system. I want to optimize my autistic brain for performance and override long-established neural patterns that arise from past traumas, big and small. A year ago, I didn’t even know this was possible. But I’m now on the neuroplasticity bandwagon, and I just can’t get enough!

To that end, I’m starting an applied neurology training course in two weeks to learn to befriend, heal and optimize my nervous system. I’m addressing the very roots of overwhelm!


Sign up for my newsletter to hear what I discover in the months ahead. Who knows? I might just be ready to offer some personal neuro consults later this year! If I can learn to live free from the tyranny of overwhelm, so can you.

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