Sensory Overload

A healing community in an overstimulating world

 
​Christine Guth is program director for ADNet.

​Is More Always Better?

Community building occurs through talking, shared activity, and group interaction. Church leaders often assume that the more of these activities we share, the better the community life. Yet for some people, those on the autism spectrum for example, communication and socialization are big challenges. Too much talk and activity may produce overload and isolation instead of drawing into community.

Understanding Sensory Sensitivity

Heightened sensory sensitivity is sometimes an underlying reason for social withdrawal. We might compare such sensitivity to having the volume turned up too loud. Sounds that most people can tune out may produce high levels of stress in a few people. Think how the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard makes us flinch. Many sounds have this distressing quality for people with heightened sound sensitivity.

This same phenomenon may occur with other sensory stimuli: a person may be acutely sensitive to the pulsating of fluorescent lighting, to pungent smells, to a light touch, or to the texture and flavor of foods. Heightened sensitivity has social implications because many people talking at once or too much going on may overwhelm the ability to process stimuli, and a person withdraws in self-defense.

Cultivating patience for such differences in sensitivity may challenge us. I often have had little patience for these sorts of issues, tending to think the person should, “just get over it.” What I am learning is that if someone could “just get over” the particular irritant, he or she would have done so by now.

The Pleasures of Predictability

My friends on the autism spectrum sometimes have a hard time sorting out the unspoken and seem-ingly irrational expectations for social interaction that the rest of us operate by. The actions and responses of others may seem volatile and inexplicable. Unpredictability in the social world often means that people on the autism spectrum have strong preferences for predictability and a stable environment, including sounds, food, clothing, schedule, etc.

Predictability calms anxiety. It is also a source of considerable enjoyment and comfort for those on the spectrum. Unpredictable or too-intense sensory stimuli may flood and overwhelm a person’s coping abilities, making it difficult to respond graciously to social cues. Those of us not on the spectrum may become more accepting when we acknowledge that routines or a subdued sensory environment are a genuine and legitimate need for this individual.

Worship and Fellowship Meals

Worship is a vital element in the community life of our churches. Yet aspects of this important activity may make participation difficult for those who have extra sensitivity to sensory stimulation.

Most children find appropriate behavior in worship hard at times. But consider the heightened challenge confronting those with greater sensory sensitivity: Uncomfortable clothes. Lots of rules. Sit up straight. No lying down. No kicking the bench in front. No getting up to go to the bathroom, get a drink, or move around. Stresses from such expectations may extend beyond childhood. Flexibility about what is acceptable behavior in worship will allow some to participate who might otherwise stay away.

Energetic contemporary worship styles pose a different problem. Turning down the volume of a worship band or waving hands instead of clapping may reduce stress for those with sensitive hearing. 

Fellowship meals are another vital element of community life. For many on the autism spectrum, when it comes to food, predictability is paramount. Anxiety runs high when you are hungry! Mix in expectations about manners, volume control, where you sit and who to sit beside. As a result, eating away from home becomes a major event. Fellowship meals that regularly include a simple and predictable food such as bread or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches may diminish anxiety and allow some to participate who might otherwise stay away. Providing a table or two in a quiet room away from the noisy crowd is another way of accommodating people with diverse needs.

Healing Community in an Overstimulated World

Like all of us, however, our sisters and brothers with sensory differences have needs for belonging and gifts to offer the community of faith. Moreover, responding thoughtfully to the needs of such persons may give our communities new ways to build a truly healing community for all people in the midst of bombarding stimulation in our modern world.

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