I spent the evening with Polyphonic’s video essays on Fairytale of New York, Walk on the Wild Side, Wish You Were Here, Tangled Up in Blue, The Thin White Duke, The Chain, Deals with the Devil, Freddie Mercury’s Voice, Flea’s Bass, and John Bonham’s drums. Polyphonic offers captivating and well-produced looks at legendary songs and musicians.
The episode on Good Vibrations, Brian Wilson’s pocket symphony, had me bringing out the headphones to disappear into the version of the song from Smile.
Headphones and curated good vibrations are how I cope with sensory overwhelm, especially when I’m out in the world, outside my Cavendish bubble, where I’m unable to control my context. Smile and Pet Sounds are great albums in which to go for a sensory swim and let the world dissolve.
The Brian Wilson biopic, “Love and Mercy”, has a very relatable scene where Wilson is overwhelmed by the noise of utensils and conversation at the dinner table.
Overload, meltdown, outburst, and retreat. That escalation is a feature of my life, at times a daily one. As meltdown approaches, everything feels like shouting, everything is too much. Sounds and social interaction become painful, and adrenaline and anxiety surge, humming through my body and senses, overloading wires insufficient to the immensity of tidal flow. The dinner table scene is a good representation of how I experience overwhelm. A noisy, crowded dinner table is a personal hellscape.
I came across this piece on Autistic Traits and Experiences in “Love and Mercy” that explains further.
This scene is quite similar to how I experience an autism sensory overload. When sounds, lights, clothing or social interaction can become painful to me. When it goes on long enough it can create what is called a meltdown or activation of the “fight-flight-freeze-tend-befriend” (formerly known as “fight or flight”) response and activation of the HPA axis; a “there is a threat in the environment” adrenaline-cortisol surge.
This makes seemingly benign noises a threat to my well-being and quite possibly real physical danger to my physiology. Benign noises become painful, and if left unchecked, enough to trigger a system reaction reserved for severe dangers. This is what days can become like on a regular basis for myself and many on the spectrum.
“Let me stick a hot poker in your hand, ok? Now I want you to remain calm.”
That is the real rub of the experience of sensory meltdowns. The misunderstanding that someone with Autism is just behaving badly, spoiled or crazy. When the sensory overwhelm is an actual and very real painful experience. It seems absurd to most people that the noise of going to a grocery store could possibly be “painful” to anyone. So most people assume the adults or children just want attention, or they can’t control their behavior. In work situations I get accused of all kinds of things. And when I leave a noisy situation like a party to step out to take a break, people will notice that I’m “upset”. They will assume or worry that I must be upset at something or someone. And that’s just if I do take a break. If I can’t take a break or get my life out of proper oscillations and can’t avoid noise or sensory/emotional overload, then I can get snappy, defensive, irritated and under very unfortunate circumstances even hostile.
What the stress of noise means, in the autism’s world of an over-sensitive physiology and ramped up stress experiences, is that that pain is warning of us of real damage being created in our bodies. So this anxiety and reactivity isn’t necessarily just perceived but is actually happening. We are not being overly dramatic or a brat (what those with Autism are often accused of). Damage to our physiology is what noise can actually do.
As I write this, I’m coming down from a long day punctuated by meltdown. I feel scoured and hollowed by adrenal exhaustion. Time for a swim in the good vibrations of someone who understands.