Dating someone with sensory overload poses a set of challenges that I couldn’t have predicted, and although it has had moments of difficulties, I have found that it’s something that with some research, guidance from my girlfriend, and trial and error, can be managed and treated with respect.
To begin, let’s give a brief overview of what sensory overload is.
According to Healthline.com, “Sensory overload happens when you’re getting more input from your five senses than your brain can sort through and process.”
That’s like saying Niagara Falls is liquid flowing over a ridge: sure, it is accurate on a rudimentary level, but truly doesn’t capture the essence of sensory overload. A more apt description may be:
“Imagine walking into a room filled with 25 72-inch flat-screen TVs that all have super-high definition and surround sound, but they’re all playing different movies,” explained Jenalyn Cloward Barton. “On full blast. At the same time. And the door is locked, so you can’t get out. Feeling anxious? Now imagine getting the same reaction just from being at the grocery store and having to drive home with your infant in the backseat. Yeah, that’s what it’s like.”
Or as my beautiful girlfriend describes it:
“Sometimes all the stimuli - colors, movement, noises, and even air movement on my skin - can feel so overwhelming, I just want to curl up in a ball with my eyes clenched shut and my fists tight against my ears, trying to reclaim some tiny measure of peace,” Caroline Kingsley said. “But of course, as an adult, that’s not a socially acceptable option. It can be a major struggle to cope with everyday situations that don’t seem to negatively impact most people, and they really can’t ‘get’ what I’m experiencing.”
There are a host of causes for SO, which include autism, PTSD, MS, and several others, but what I would like to focus on are five ways you can support someone who is suffering from this sensory issue.
1. Patience is Key
Nobody wants to suffer from SO; it’s incredibly frustrating for them, and all they can ask for is your patience.
2. Learn about SO
Judgement usually comes from a lack of understanding. If you’re reading this you’re off to a good start. But truly research Sensory Overload, what the signs are that your loved one is experiencing, and how to help them specifically. Study it together so your loved one can offer insights on how they experience it.
3. Provide a Quiet Place
Whenever possible, arrange to have a quiet place close by that they can escape to when they feel overloaded. This may also involve driving to functions in separate cars, so they aren’t trapped in a potentially overwhelming situation.
4. Help Them Escape
When you see that they are becoming overwhelmed, step up and help them escape the moment. This may come in the form of asking kids to turn down loud music, keeping noise canceling headphones handy, turning down the lights, closing the drapes, asking if they’re overwhelmed, and then excusing both of you from the situation.
5. Respect Their Space
Don’t insist on holding or touching them, or present during an episode. Allow them whatever space they need to overcome the episode.