Overcoming Sensory Overwhelm in School or the Workplace

It can be a struggle for any individual to cope with the complex environments and expectations in today’s workplaces, colleges, or public high schools, but as an autistic adult or teen, the challenges can lead to overwhelm and build up to sensory overload. How can autistic individuals succeed in these environments without being overwhelmed to the point of shutting down? Dynamic intelligence (DI) can help.

Dynamic Intelligence refers to a collection of resources including self-knowledge, mental habits, mindsets, and mental tools that help us function effectively in complex dynamic environments. In simple terms, DI helps individuals cope with diverse situations, become problem-solvers, and learn to effectively pivot with life changes.

Dynamic Intelligence (DI) Can Prevent Overwhelm and Support Success

Dynamic intelligence can be applied in practical ways to help autistic teens and adults not only deal with challenges in the workplace and school settings but to diminish overwhelm.

Here is how dynamic intelligence can make this success possible:

Emotional Referencing

Emotional referencing is the ability to “read” and learn from the emotional experiences of others. In an uncertain situation, searching for emotional information from another person, and using that emotion to help appraise uncertain situations can reduce anxiety and overwhelm.

In the workplace: In a meeting, we were told to expect major procedural changes. Overwhelming dread covered me like a blanket, but when I looked around the room, I noticed that my mentor was smiling and appeared calm. This led me to follow suit – I pushed through my feelings of uncertainty.

Social Coordination

Social coordination is the ability to observe others and self-regulate behavior in order to participate in social relationships.

In the workplace: I calmed down when I saw that my mentor handled the proposed changes well. I did have questions. So, once I observed what everyone else was doing, I joined in the conversation and I obtained what I needed to know without becoming overly anxious.

Declarative Language

Declarative language is the ability to use language and non-verbal language for expression, interaction, and to share feelings and ideas with others.

In the workplace: I engaged in conversation. I expressed my opinions and asked questions about the upcoming procedural changes. I shared my feelings, but I also input my ideas. I learned that I am free to express myself, interact, and share my ideas with others – even when I face challenges.

Flexible Thinking

Flexible thinking is the ability to adapt when life’s circumstances change.

In school: I demonstrated flexible thinking the day that I realized that I learn better ‘by the book.’ Some class settings and lectures just throw me off. My brain goes fuzzy, and I am uncomfortable to the point of overwhelm. When it gets intense, I know that I can adapt. I take in the highlights from the lecture (try to relax into them) and then when I physically return to my quiet space, I once again absorb through my way of learning. I have conquered this!

I have adapted to change before, and I can adapt again. Nothing really stays the same forever. When change presents itself, it is okay to feel jarred for a moment. I know I can allow myself to process things for a time and then I flexibly go with the flow.

Relational Information Processing

Relational information processing is the ability to think situations through, to obtain solutions when there are no “right or wrong” answers.

In the workplace: The new written procedures were confusing. I asked my supervisor if I could write my own. She agreed and said that the end result was all that mattered. That became a breakthrough for me. I reframed successfully, and I can reframe again!

Foresight and Hindsight

Foresight and hindsight is the ability to reflect on past experiences and use them as a tool to anticipate potential future scenarios.

In the workplace: I left the meeting feeling nervous, but then I remembered the experience I had a year ago when our entire computer program changed (not just a process or two). I recall sitting in the training room, and my thoughts were that I would never ‘get’ the new system! I felt defeated, and the more I thought about it, the more confused I got. I could not think. I could barely function. I was losing it. I felt as if the world was pressing in on me and I was stuck. I was shutting down.

I managed to get away to a quiet spot during a break. I calmed down. It was perfect that I didn’t join everyone in the breakroom. It was okay that I took care of myself. I self-regulated! Later, after the new program went live, I was amazed at how I intrinsically learned how to make my way around the system. Not only did I understand it, but others also came to me with their questions. I helped them! This experience gave me a wealth of foresight and hindsight that I still use today. It became a catalyst for growth.

Ways to Support DI in the Workplace or School

The components of dynamic intelligence are essential soft skills in a workplace or school setting, but there are additional steps that autistic individuals can take that can boost the outcome of these skills and reduce stress and overwhelm.

Here are five steps ways to help reduce overwhelm in a workplace or school setting:

1. Ask for a Mentor

A key worker. A post-graduate student. Someone that can help with breaking down assignments, procedures, or directions.

2. Ask for Additional Learning or Training Materials

Ask for additional learning or training materials (i.e., video, written, audio, etc.) that you can take home, watch later, or listen to during a break. Ask for outlines or transcripts in meetings or lectures.

3. Explain That You May Need to Go to a Safe or Quiet Space

Explain that you may need to go to a safe or quiet space if you feel overwhelmed. Ask if work space is available that meets your sensory needs. Explain that you may occasionally need to take a walk, or a break, to process your thoughts and emotions.

4. Explain That You May Need Additional Response Time

Explain that you may need additional time to respond socially. You may need to process the emotions of others and assess situations before you can coordinate socially. It may even require self-regulation to get it done.

In the workplace: At times, my brain felt jumbled when I attended corporate meetings. My supervisor quit asking me to voice my opinion at the round table. She once whispered in my ear, “I know you’ll have something valuable to input. Come visit with me later after you’ve thought about it!” It worked! I found joy and accomplishment when my ideas were accepted and valued, even when I presented them later.

5. Ask for Clear Expectations

Express your solutions and your goals and ask questions when your boss or teacher’s instructions or expectations are unclear.

“I might hit developmental and societal milestones in a different order than my peers, but I am able to accomplish these small victories on my own time.” – Haley Moss, Autistic, Author, Attorney

You can succeed as an autistic in the workplace, public high school, or college setting by using emotional referencing, declarative language, flexible thinking, relational information processing, and foresight and hindsight. The takeaway is that life is ALWAYS a learning experience, and it becomes growth-promoting when it is processed as such.

Be gentle with yourself – do not hesitate to ask for any support that you may need.



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