Autism: Coping with Shopping and Sensory Overload

Autism: Coping with Sensory Overload and Shopping

The neurodevelopmental disorders collectively referred to as autism affects every person differently. Autism presents as a certain set of behaviors that can limit a person’s ability to interact with others. Autism is characterized by certain outwardly visible behaviors such as speech difficulties or nonverbal communication, repetitive behaviors, appearing to throw “tantrums,” or challenges with social interactions.

Internally, there is much, much more than those visible behaviors. People with autism may struggle with things that seem natural to someone without autism, such as interpreting speech. Oftentimes, people with autism are visual learners and will grasp concepts more quickly when demonstrated visually rather than receiving directions verbally. These struggles and the associated stress of social interactions, or sometimes lack of social interactions, can be very hard mentally on people with autism. Approximately 40% of people with autism experience symptoms of at least one anxiety disorder at any given time, and more people with autism experience depression than people without autism.

What’s worse is that these people are also less likely to seek help for these conditions, because they may not know how to word what they’re feeling. If someone is nonverbal, identifying anxiety and depression can be extremely difficult. This is not to say that anyone with autism is battling with depression or anxiety, but it is more likely to occur given with the stresses of their everyday life, and it’s something to be aware of if you have a loved one who has autism.

It’s wonderful when people with autism can go about their lives without feeling like every little thing is a major struggle. To help them accomplish this, an increasing number of shops in the United Kingdom are introducing an occasional “quiet hour” in their stores. During these designated times, “lighting will be dimmed and music turned down” to help customers with autism have a more pleasant experience shopping. During normal hours, tasks that seem simple and mundane such as going to the grocery store can be a nightmare for someone with autism. This is because of the impact that autism can have on one’s sensory system.

Sensory Overload

The impact that autism has on the sensory system often leads to “sensory overload” for people living with autism. The brain of someone with autism may zone in on things that most people would never notice; and, often, the brain chooses to zone in on multiple things at once. Supermarkets in particular are the perfect arena for the sensory system to go into overdrive. Consider all of the sights, sounds, smells, and feelings that are available to you in a supermarket. The fluorescent lights are often very bright, food packages that line the wall come in all colors and shades, there are many different conversations going on at once, employees make announcements on the loudspeaker, butchers slice and package meet for customers, the air conditioner may be humming, bread may be baking, and so on. For most people, going shopping is an extremely easy experience, and you likely wouldn’t ever be bothered by any of these things (besides a normal amount of annoyance with crowds and such). But, someone with autism may notice all of these things at the same time. This is an incredible amount of sensory information for the brain to handle at once. In children with autism, this type of sensory overload may lead to temper tantrums.

For adults, it can cause intense migraines, a racing heartbeat, or even the feeling of physical sickness. It’s possible that the outward expressions often seen in children is the result of these same unpleasant feelings. And, of course, everyone with autism has their own unique experiences. While some people with autism may not have these problems while shopping, many people do. But even those who do may have extremely different experiences than the ones given; you cannot capture the feelings of everyone with autism with a few narrow examples.

While children are prone to tantrums, adults with autism are much less likely to react in that way, even when they’re experiencing major discomfort. Rather, they struggle with these feelings of sensory overload internally. Oftentimes they may outwardly appear like nothing is wrong, but their head is swirling or pounding on the inside. They may go home from work or school that day feeling exhausted or “defeated.” One woman, Rose, describes hiding beneath her desk at university due to construction noise on campus. She also at times failed exams because she was so intensely distracted by another student tapping their fingers on their desk. While these noises are an annoyance for almost everyone, for Rose they were majorly debilitating and utterly disruptive to her day and ability to complete her tasks.

An overactive sensory system is triggered by more than just sound. Multiple women give the example of clothing to describe how autism impacts their lives. A woman with autism living in the U.K., Meg, described jeans as “a cheese-grater, but it’s somehow worse than that.” Carly Jones also cited this issue with clothing as the reason why people with autism can’t simply shop online instead of going to stores, as she says some people have suggested she do to avoid sensory overload. But, because the feeling of clothing is so crucial for Carly and her daughters, who also have autism, online shopping would be a fruitless endeavor.

How to Help

Along with the opportunity to shop stress-free, Carly says that she’s grateful for the newly implemented quiet hours at stores because it is an opportunity to “highlight to those customers who are not touched by autism how the most simple, taken-for-granted activities such as shopping can be a real hurdle for those who have sensory issues.” While thankfully most people today are at least vaguely aware of what autism is, they may not realize how difficult it can be for people with autism to perform routine tasks. The quiet hours may be an eye-opener to the difficulties people with autism face every day.

But, as Carly points out, this is no way means that people with autism aren’t allowed to go about their lives being their “authentic autistic selves” at all hours of the day. It may seem challenging for someone without autism to strike the balance of respecting people with autism and trying to be sensitive of their needs, while still treating them “normally” and avoiding making them feel as if they are “the other.”

While it can be hard to come to one conclusion on how to do this, since the autism spectrum is so wide and the people that comprise it so different from one another, there are a few key principles. Autism can be a major influence in someone’s life, but when you really get to know someone, you discover their interests, passions, and strengths. Focus on these things, rather than the difficulties someone with autism may face. Because social interactions can be daunting or difficult for someone with autism, if you’re aware that someone has the condition, go the extra mile to make them feel comfortable and included in group settings. By making that effort to help them feel comfortable, you could boost their confidence in social settings that makes the experience more enjoyable the next time and for years to come.

First and foremost, always remember that people are more than their condition; regardless of where they fall on the spectrum, there is more to someone than their autism. Remember to look beyond the condition and see people for who they are, and focus on their strengths rather than their weaknesses. By simply being kind and respectful to all people, you’ll effectively be kind and respectful to all people with autism.