Overstimulation can happen to anyone. We all feel overwhelmed from time to time. However people on the autism spectrum experience overstimulation more frequently and more heavily than others. It’s no coincidence. It has to do with the needs of your mind.
The human brain is an incredibly powerful computer. In fact all computational devices are modelled on human computational ability at a basic level. It may not seem like it to you dear reader but you are an incredibly intelligent being. In fact the name of our species, Homo sapiens, literally translates to “Man, wise,” man being the genus and sapiens being the species of man to which we belong.
The reason for this wisdom lies in the sheer computational capability of the sapiens brain. It may not have ever occurred to you but at every waking moment of your life, even if you are sitting in solitude on a quiet grassy knoll, your brain is receiving, analyzing, relaying and reacting to stimuli from five senses in real time with almost zero delay in the process. That is to say that even while you read this blog your mind is constantly computing what you smell, see, taste, touch and hear and using this input data to sense your position and awareness of physical space, proprioception, potential threats, stressors like alarming sounds and how you emotionally feel all while translating the words you are reading by phonetically sounding the words out in your mind and processing the data allowing you to consider what is being discussed. You likely take for granted that your mind works tirelessly to negotiate multiple highly complicated processes like this because it seems like the daily norm to you but don’t get it twisted, you are shockingly intelligent and the proof is in your very existence.
As I said above everyone gets overwhelmed. This is simply because even at rest your mind is engaged in all that I discuss above and more. Such processes take a considerable amount of fuel, when you run out of fuel to feed your ever active brain in such tasks you get overwhelmed and crash, or at the very least need some rest time. In fact your brain accounts for only two or three percent of your total body weight but it consumes twenty-five percent of your bodies total calories when at rest.
The main sources of fuel for your ever-active mind are primarily healthy fats and carbohydrates along with some key boosters like borine and lecithin. So eat healthy if you want to avoid feeling mental fatigue. Fat free diets do not beget a smart primate. Avoid processed foods, processed foods have conclusively shown to lower intelligence and impair cognitive ability.
Healthy grains and fats only for that high octane thinker of yours my friend.
People on the autism spectrum can find overstimulation to be a terrific challenge.
This is because, on some level at least, various elements of the senses that a person with autism computes are affected by that person with autism being hyper or hypo sensitive. They can therefore burn up too much fuel too quickly resulting in something that those of us on the autism spectrum refer to as “overstim.”
Overstim is merely the process of burning out of fuel for our high performance brain faster than neural typical folks might. This can be because of varying levels of sensitivity. If Janet is hyper sensitive to sound, the noise that you receive as volume level seven might be received as volume level twenty to Janet and her mind has to work even harder to balance out the auditory input that threatens to overwhelm her. If Sean is hypo sensitive to sound, noise that you receive at volume level seven might seem like volume level one to Sean and his mind has to work harder to dial up the auditory input he needs to follow along with the program. Either hyper or hypo sensitivity drastically increases the potential demand of any of the various five sensory experiences leaving people on the autism spectrum feeling drained with more frequency or more rapidly. Add to that the typically high intelligence associated with level one autism and the constant thinking that results from it and you have a recipe for burning out and/or needing an escape.
With youth that are on the autism spectrum this commonly shared experience of overstim can have some potentially disastrous affects. Sweden recently reported that substance abuse is twice as prevalent among the autistic population there. The most common cause of death in autistic populations in North America is “accident, self harm/suicide.”
So how can one help protect against overstim or being overwhelmed?
Reading, good old fashioned reading. It turns out that reading is an inefficient way to take in information. This is because the words you read visually have to then be processed in your auditory complex as well. Listening to an audiobook is actually easier than reading a book and that is typically why people prefer it. Easier rarely leads to stronger however, and there in lies the benefit of reading. The challenge of reading drives neural genesis and improves cognitive function. Reading, as it turns out, is a workout for your mind. The process of reading leads to improved cognitive function and makes cognition more efficient precisely because reading is inefficient and therefore more demanding on your mind. That translates to resilience against mental exhaustion resulting greater ease of cognition throughout daily tasks. That means less energy spent on said tasks. This can translate to some level of protection against overstimulation, like the overstim experienced by persons with autism.
It doesn’t matter what you read either, so long as it is engaging and somewhat challenging. If you are a parent you can give your child comic books at first. Then upgrade to graphic novels (comic books for adults). You can eventually work your kid up to proper fiction like Harry Potter or other young adult series. If your child really fights your attempts to encourage reading maybe make a trade? I allow myself certain indulgences only AFTER I’ve read a chapter of my book of choice, why not try something similar with your children and help them to build a tolerance to challenges that lead to overstim?
There are other tools available as well, for those of us that simply abhor reading. The website Brain H.Q. is an excellent peer reviewed website that offers the only clinically researched brain games that are proven to improve cognitive function and fight cognitive decline. Additionally playground equipment is engaging to the human body’s various senses as well. It may seem childish but even an adult can benefit a lot from climbing frames and jungle gyms. There are even some adult level playgrounds now being built and offered for use in businesses in major cities precisely for the reasons I discussed above, and membership is cheap. You can also check out your local rock-climbing club for a similar workout.
So pick up a book, for fun, fact or fiction. Give your mental muscles a flex and eat some healthy fats if you can. Reading might seem unpleasant to some but overstim is surely more unpleasant than the adventures of your favourite hero in an entertaining fiction.
You might learn to like reading and hey, you might even come out of it more sapiens than the rest.
More wise than man, sounds like the start of a great story.