sensory overload – touch

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Some clothing can be unbelievably uncomfortable or downright painful (image courtesy of ningmilo at

Along with sound, touch (or texture) is an area where Geordie has, in the past, suffered from sensory overload.

I need to preface this by saying that I know there are many people with Autism who are unable to cope with skin-to-skin touch, i.e. hugging, holding hands, kissing etc. We are so, so lucky that this does not apply to Geordie. In fact, skin-to-skin contact is one of the few things that can pull him out of a meltdown. I thank the powers that be every day for the fact I can hug, cuddle and kiss my boy.

Clothing has been the ‘goliath’ for Geordie.

We’ve all suffered, at some time, from the scratchy jumper or the too tight neckline or the tickly tag. It’s irritating and uncomfortable, but manageable. Not so for Geordie. According to Tony Attwood, these clothing mishaps can be downright painful, to the point where the individual is unable to function.

Again, as with our experience with loud noises, I wish I had known this when Geordie was a toddler. It may have explained several things:

♦ the need to cut out every bit of the clothing tag from every item of clothing as failure to do so would cause great distress

♦ the refusal to wear socks for a whole year; shoes without socks were fine, but socks in shoes meant standing up and walking was just not going to happen

♦ the difficulty of transferring from summer clothes to winter ones; several months of bare legs meant moving back into long pants was a nightmare.

These days clothing remains an issue, albeit a more manageable one. We still have to cut the tags off clothing and struggle a little to make the move back into long pants. There are also many items of unworn clothing in the cupboard; most of them are there because “I don’t like how they feel”. Personally, I can’t tell the difference — they all feel the same to me — but Geordie obviously can.

I imagine shopping for someone with sensory issues would be somewhat similar to grocery shopping for someone with food intolerance — you cannot just pick items willy-nilly and assume they will be fine. I have learned to: forget about buying anything in denim; leave clothing with cuffs (jumpers and track suit pants) on the shelves; and test the stretchiness of the neckline before purchasing t-shirts and jumpers. We also don’t do shirts with buttons or collars; and anything with a hood has to be really special to get a look in.

It’s all manageable and is just a case of being aware; although, just for fun, Geordie will occasionally throw in a curve-ball and refuse to wear something he has been fine with for years.

Given what I know now about sensory overload for touch, I am prone to wonder if this had anything to do with Geordie’s sleeping issues as a baby. Was it the texture of his pyjamas, or the sheets, or the blanket? Was it the open space around him, perhaps — little body in a big cot? Was it the lack of skin-to-skin contact? I suspect we will never really know.

What these questions, and our many years of clothing wars, do show, however, is the need to be flexible and not make assumptions. Trying to identify the cause of sensory overload meltdowns, and make adjustments to accommodate them, is much more productive than telling the child to ‘grow up’ or looking to punish him for his behaviour (both of which I have been told to do, or witnessed being done).

Geordie’s clothing preferences are just another part of his beautiful and quirky personality.

sensory overload – sound

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Loud sounds are not just annoying – they can be downright painful. (image courtesy of digitalart at

I wish I had known about Tony Attwood at the time of Geordie’s diagnosis. The man is brilliant and explains the ins and outs of Asperger’s in a way nobody else seems to be able to do.


Recently, I completed an online course with Tony. Ten years down the track with numerous ‘courses’ under my belt, and I still gained a host of practical information and experienced a myriad of ‘a-ha’ moments.

The section on sensory overload was of particular interest because this is something Geordie has experienced over the years in varying degrees of severity.

Being subjected to a certain powerful or unexpected sound, smell, taste, sight or texture can be irritating, distressing or frustrating for the so-called ‘normal’ person — but for someone on the spectrum the same experience can be downright painful.

One point Tony made in the webinar was that a tendency to sensory overload in any given area is permanent. At the time, I found myself disagreeing. Over the years, Geordie has experienced numerous bouts of sensory overload, most notably with sound. I thought he had grown out of it, until something happened last night that made me want to apologise to Tony for doubting him.

First though, I’ll provide a bit of background.

Our initial (known) experience with sensory overload was in the public toilets. Out of necessity rather than preference, we would have to take Geordie into these places to change nappies and, later, to go to the toilet. Every single time we walked in, he would start screaming. Loud, ear-piercing, uncontrollable screaming that would not stop until many, many minutes after we had exited the area. It took several months to cotton on to what was causing this — the hand dryers. Those things are loud at the best of times, but for Geordie the sound must have been excruciating because the minute he saw one, even if it was off, he would go into meltdown. It got to the point where we would have to slink in so he couldn’t see the dryer, rush him out if someone used it, and even ask people to refrain from pressing the button until we had left.

Then, one day, the meltdowns stopped.

For a time, as a toddler, Geordie was also sound sensitive to helicopters. At first it was just the helicopters, then it was hot-air balloons, planes and helicopters, then the meltdowns began if a bird flew overhead. We became hyper-vigilant whenever we were outside. If we saw any sort of speck on the horizon we would either quickly coax Geordie inside until it had passed, or play ‘let’s cover our ears’.

Then, one day, the meltdowns stopped and it was safe to go outside again.

Certain activities at school have also presented an issue over the years: whole school assemblies; excursions that included a bus trip (which is most of them); concerts and band performances; and carnivals. I suspect extra noisy classes may also have caused issues as Geordie went through a stage where he would leave the room on a regular basis. These activities did not cause a traditional meltdown as such, but a flat refusal to enter the space from where the noise was coming.

Then, one day, this all ceased to be a major, daily issue.

We have been lucky to have been mostly supported in finding ways to deal with Geordie’s sensory overload with sound. Many of his teachers have found ways around it, helping him develop noise tolerance strategies; family have been supportive; and even many strangers have been understanding once we explained  what was going on. (On that note, though, there seriously needs to be more education about the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown.)

For the last couple of years, excessive sound has elicited no more of a reaction from Geordie than it has from anyone else. So, perhaps you can see why I thought he’d grown out of it, but last night put paid to that gloating feeling I’d been experiencing.

‘Owww,’ Geordie said to me as he walked into the loungeroom.

‘What?’ I replied, ‘Did you hurt yourself?’

Geordie covered his ears, ‘That noise hurts my ears.’

What noise? I couldn’t hear anything at all.

‘The buzzing,’ he said, ‘from the lights.’

I turned the TV off and listened intently. There was indeed a faint hum coming from the lights. I could barely hear it, but it was hurting Geordie’s ears and we had to turn the dimmer switch on the lights down until the noise stopped hurting.

The sensory overload is still there; he’s just learned how to deal with it.

Bugger and Yay at the same time!