Sunday, November 1, 2015

Explaining Sensory Sickness and Halloween Sensory Overload in Children

*Trigger warning: I felt sick writing some of this but I felt it was important for people to understand who have little kids with sensory sickness because children may not be able to tell how sensory sickness feels. My version may be more intense or different but there is probably a lot of overlap. Please be warned I do use the word vomit ect. Each child is unique in their way of Being in the world. The fact is, it is not fair for a parent to expect something more or get upset at sensory sickness or sensory meltdown. A parent is supposed to aid with self understanding, aid in protection, and help minimize pain....understanding a first hand explanation of sensory sickness may help in this.*


Every Halloween I forget I have sensory issues. For some reason logic is thrown out the window with my internal dialogue, "This year it will be different... I have come to know myself SO well that I will normalize perfectly." Yes, I am an idealist and unfortunately sometimes this transfers into idealizing my own life moments before they even happen.

Albert Einstein once said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again yet expecting different results. With that in mind the last decade, we have done something extremely different each Halloween...yet the results are the same; sensory sickness for me. My husband says my sensory thresholds are lower than my children in some cases and Halloween is one example. My children have been sick seven out of ten years but I have been sick for every single one. One year I don't count because I was hospitalized with the Norovirus, which inspired my ritualistic love affair with my hand sanitizer, but every other year I have been sensory sick.

Sensory sick is an extension of sensory overload or can be combined with sensory overload. When a person who experiences sensory overload has spent a prolonged time in an environment that causes their body to react in a different manner than those who do not experience sensory overload would in the same situation it often leads to sensory sickness. It can involve any (or usually ALL) of the senses and is similar to a drug induced symptoms or manifestations. I have learned through therapy and life circumstances how to (somewhat) manage this. The odd time I will be completely taken off guard and not realize until way later what is happening. Unfortunately, the realization usually happens hours after an epic meltdown or alarming symptoms. Not all autistics experience sensory overload at high levels, but most have variations of sensory overload due to our various perceptions of the world.

My version of sensory sick comes with it's own set of complications. At first I feel great. I am costumed up and have enjoyed my prepping time to get to the point of being ready. I love dressing up. As a child all I played is make believe. Now I realize that is because I did not understand myself but KNEW I did not fit in. I imagined living in the early little house on the prairie days or the 1940's singing with Gene Kelly or dressing with Marilyn Monroe flair. I was always someone else. It was easier to mimic people I admired. A typical aspie girl desire to fit in is often accompanied by mimicking. This served me well in many cases but I never realized that the stomach pains and panic I would get later in the evening were BECAUSE of dressing up. My love affair caused as much pain as it gave joy. To this day I envy women who can go for prolonged periods of dressing up, wearing heels or make up or costumed in some bizarre statement without getting sick later. I like making statements because I never fit in anyway. I am counter cultural in many aspects and I feel that in being a minority it's important to have a voice. I enjoy being individualistic. If I did not have my sensory issues I would most likely be a pierced, tattooed, crazily dressed individual. I don't like attention but I dislike being a cultural norm even more. Which is why I have a tough time witnessing women who WANT the attention enjoying the benefits of dressing up. I WISH I could manage to do this. I could have been an actress if it wasn't for this fact...not a famous one because I despise fame, but a character on stage would have been fun or dressing up for children's parties.  I can't because my sensory issues are very prominent. However, as a child and teen I DID have a longer tolerance for this sort of thing. In therapy I have learned how to not be sick every day of my life but I'm still me and the way my senses choose to interpret information to my body is often not appealing.

About twenty minutes after I am in my outfit... I want to get out of it. Anything past half an hour is painful. If I go beyond two hours it will guarantee a night of hell later. I basically dress up because I enjoy the process of doing so, snap some pictures to remember all my effort, and then ideally I jump in the shower to wash it all off and get into sweats and a t-shirt. The problem is that most events I dress up for are not shorter than a half hour. While I could go see Wicked in sweatpants and a T shirt...I don't want to. I take off my outfit the second we are out of the theatre and in our van. I love having a van because it has blacked out windows and I can change easily in the back which draws less attention (and germs) than a bathroom. I kick off heels for flip flops and push my seat back so I can semi lay down to take the pressure off my ever stressed out gut. Oh the glamourous life I lead.

In previous years for Halloween we have tried:
*Staying in to watch movies ( I still got sick because I was overloaded with people coming to our door despite the black out and also worrying over if my kids were missing out because of me.)
* Sending the kids with their dad (same result as above except now I was worried I was missing out because of sensory issues and I felt guilty. Plus I wanted to be with my kids. They got sick later.)
* Attending an alternative dress up party at my best friends house (She was incredible and understood my early need to go home but a few others at the party were condescending about my seemingly lack of support for my best friend. I was very sick that night and my kids had meltdowns.)
* Dressing up to go out to eat and coming home
* Only going to my parents, grandparents and husband's parents and handing out treats for an hour after
* Only handing out treats
*Attending a murder mystery dinner
*Skipping town and heading to the city ( this was the worst idea ever...nothing is scarier to a home town aspie than a city on Halloween night:)
*Changing our diet (this helped a lot. We don't partake in any Halloween treats and my parents and grandparents make up a special care package for my kids of gluten free, sugar free snacks. I think this explains my kid's last two Halloween's without sickness.)
*Attending a Star Wars Identity forum (this was my only successful Halloween event- see post script)

While each of these scenarios had their fun moments, ALL except the last one, ended in sickness for me. I love Halloween simply for the fact that many aspects of it suit me. It suits my witchy side and the part of me that loves to play a role. It suits the rebel in me and the individualistic parts of my soul. It also suits the geeky obsessive parts of me that drool over superhero paraphernalia, cult fiction, and Star Wars outfits...I am the girl who kissed Vadar at a Star Wars event and leaked two tears when I watched the latest Star Wars trailer and Han Solo came on the screen. Yup, in that way Halloween suits me perfectly. I love the sparkly, happy decor part of it and despise the disgusting, bloody, scary aspect. I am a fluffy sort of Halloween person. I like the cute fake spiders and the bright orange pumpkins. As a child I was torn between being a princess or a witch...the princess won. Now as an adult I pick Bellatrix or Regina or something witchy. Yet, the concept is the same for me...I love Halloween because the 'freaks', 'geeks' and 'rebels' can be out and don't get flack for it. Halloween is also appealing to creative types. We love coming up with costumes around our home and doing the make up for it. We love decorating and the creativity and imagination it requires.

Other than Christmas, Halloween is my favourite holiday and thus it is my toughest (besides Christmas) because I see what I COULD be doing, enjoying or participating in...and I kind of want it. Yes, I have a fulfilling life and I have had many beautiful holidays...but just ONCE would I love to not have to go to bed early on Christmas Eve and savour more of the moment. Just ONCE would I love to dress up in a heavy costume and not feel the weight of it constantly or pay for it for days to come. My brain simply can not process the onslaught of information and takes hours to calm down. (At the time of publication, I read this to my daughter and at this point she yells, "ME TOO MOM!")

Sensory sickness for me starts with a slight feeling of unexplained panic. At the time I do not attribute it to sensory stuff because my brain just does not work that way, despite being on that same road many times. It takes awhile to catch up. So instead I say comments to anyone around me like, "I think I may be coming down with something" or "Does anyone have the flu here because I may have just caught it?" or "I feel like something REALLY bad is gonna happen" or "I have to get out of here NOW." There is a distinct need to escape. I feel like I need to claw my way out of whatever get up I am in and make a run for it. Just in case my control ever snaps I wear cute little black shorts and a crop top under anything uncomfortable. It hasn't happened yet but I am prepared.

After this feeling of dread and panic comes the tingles down the arm, the numbness on my left side of my body and stomach clenching. The chills and a low grade fever follow. Yes, it is possible to get a fever with sensory sickness because the body is sending out the wrong messages to the brain to fight something that isn't even there. I start to shake and feel out of my body. I run to the toilet several times but nothing comes up yet. The only time something may come up is if I have left my body way beyond what it could handle. If I catch it in time or right around the time of panic and do not force it to endure longer I will not vomit or have the runs...but if I force a longer fortitude a full on stomach flu WILL happen. This is intense sensory sickness.


*unexplained crying
*unexplained fit throwing
*a verbal fit
* kicking, screaming or hitting
* pulling or tugging at clothes
*staying silent or mute
*falling asleep in the middle of chaos
*inability to focus
*nervous movements of hands, drumming of feet, stimming anxiously to soothe, antagonizing those around, picking at skin, poking others
*running away or disappearing
*grabbing stomach
*curling up into a ball
*clinging to a parent
*disappearing to the bathroom

The pictures below are last year- We had a few little temper tantrums before the event...including my own:)

Not all of these signs will mean a full out sensory sickness but most will show that the child is having difficulty processing sensory information. Most of the time, if it is a light manifestation, the child needs time to adjust, explanations to aid them, and someone who can think outside the box to find a more comfortable way of participation if that is the goal. Also remember children should not always be forced to participate and this comes with it's own set of consequences - a post for another time. What is most important is a safe place to be and to hopefully avoid illness induced by sensory overload.


The only solution to ease sensory sickness that I have found is a dark, quiet, comfortable, warm room and plenty of downtime or stimming for some children. Most of the time, this involves sleep if the ill affects are in advanced stages. Some children may need to twirl if it is their bodies that hurt but not their stomachs. For myself, stimming makes it worse due to the nausea. I need to lie still but I will rub my feet up against each other. My body will be unable to get warm. I will either have to sit in a hot shower or my husband will put at least four weighted blankets on me. I will shake until my body normalizes it's internal temperature. The shakes are violent and seizure like. Once my temperature is normalized then I can start to feel my muscles unwind which in turn helps my stomach stop twisting and my oesophagus stop triggering me into thinking I am going to vomit. This usually takes about half an hour. After that, I know I am in the clear for vomit or the runs which will happen after this time if my body does not regulate. After warming up, I just keep repeating a mantra in my mind. Usually it is "This will pass. You have done this before. You will wake up with a light sensory hangover but if you take it easy tomorrow you will be fine." I have to tell myself this over and over again. My body is betraying me. It is telling me that lights will hurt me and noises will cause vomit. My body tells me that it has a rash from the clothes or painful marks but it does not tell me accurately that these will go away. Instead it's alarm system is high. I have to combat this with my mantra, certain sleep positions, and deep breathing until I fall into a fitful sleep. I want to be alone for all of this yet I don't want to be alone. My solution for this is to have someone I trust (usually my husband) tuck me in, make sure I don't start vomiting, and leave me once I regulate a bit with the assurance that I will be checked on quietly every 20 minutes for the first hour until I am asleep. Once I am asleep he needs to come to bed and cuddle me so that when I inevitably wake up feeling crappy, his normalcy is beside me. I feel the heavy comfort of his arm around my body and I am able to go back to sleep. If this does not happen I can start the cycle all over again. I need a full sleep before I can conquer the cycle. If the room has a fan or any light I will not calm down no matter how much I try. It's not my fault. The room feels like it does after a bomb...eerily weird, screechy and blurry.  It's how my brain is perceiving information.

If your child gets sensory sick they may act out. They may act aggressive or take off running or rip off their clothes. They can't explain what is happening...they just need to escape. I wrote in THIS post, "Often those with sensory overload can feel the overwhelming amounts of visual, auditory, tactile, and olfactory information that is coming from everyone in the room. Remember the last time you had a really bad flu? Picture yourself in your darkened room and suddenly someone turns on the light, another person comes in smelling like whatever you just threw up, someone else blasts some music that is high pitched, you hear talk of people who just died from the same flu you are fighting and you suddenly feel paranoid, your headache flares and someone decides that you will feel better if you are forced to walk around, finally someone comes and sits in your space and tries to talk to you while you are dealing with all of this. It sounds dramatic but that is often a typical moment for those of us who experience sensory overload in a large unfamiliar gathering with many factors involved."


Children may not be able to express how they feel with sensory overload or ill effects from sensory overload. You may think they simply came down with a flu or a weird bug. I am an adult with more than nine years of cognitive therapy behind me. I know the workings of the brain better than many professionals due to constant peer reviewed reading (and more importantly first hand experiences) and research. I KNOW what's happening to my body once I have time to clue in, yet I can not stop my worst episodes. If I can't do it- a child certainly can not be expected to STOP.

Children may feel a vast conflict of emotion. They probably want to be like the other kids. They want to have friends. They want to dress up sometimes or be a part of festivities. They may not want to do any of this but still want to be with their parents. Or they may have some combo of both. Some children need to still do "normal" events...but it should be THEIR choice. Some children will only suffer minorly but it still affects the way they view the world in the future. It is important to help them recognize how they feel and what these feelings are from. I do not like it when people compare me to a normally wired person. For instance, "You are not really sick. No one gets sick from wearing the wrong outfit or partying. You are just overwhelmed. Take a minute and get yourself together. Behave appropriately."

This is wrong on so many levels. The fact is my body IS really sick. It is attacking itself. It is telling my brain I have a virus or bug which explains the flushing or low fevers or chills. I do not make this up to get attention because I hate attention and I also am usually having fun when the panic starts to set in. I am not normally wired so do not expect me to behave as such. However, what does help me is to normalize my normalizing I mean validating "MY normal." For instance, statements like, "You have been through this before, your body is reacting to the overload of information. Your body is doing an amazing job at what it knows how to do. I am sorry it causes you pain and let's try to do everything we can to minimize this so you can get back to your beautiful existence without as much trouble." Yea, I realize most people do not talk like that, but because of me, my husband, children and best friend DO say statements like that now. It can become a norm. Sometimes we need someone to simply sing us home. Home is an important concept for those who suffer sensory issues because it is the one place we have control. See THIS post. It's important to celebrate the ordinary moments and obsessions we have that give us joy because we will also inevitably have moments of complete sensory chaos. Despite being different, we need to feel safe and like we can at least belong where we live. Celebrate us home.

Have you experienced sensory sickness? What helps you?

Song Choice: Celebrate Me Home- Kenny Loggins

Post Script: My only successful Halloween event was this a couple years ago and what I wrote about it in my private blog...maybe I should attend events every Halloween weekend instead of anything else?:
 Before we went in, we spotted R2D2. (For some reason my brother took these at a weird angle...I am NOT that short.) R2D2 could walk, and make the same sounds as in the movie...
In the above picture I jumped and was surprised because his face turned around to look at me...
 Then he surprised me with a whistle. (Picture below) A Cat Call whistle...and I died laughing along with all the other spectators. I patted him on the head and said, "You have always been my favourite. Now I know why." When I watched my first installment of the OLD Star Wars in grade five, I would have been ecstatic to know that R2D2 would one day whistle at me.
 The evil Emperor and the Storm Trooper were actually kind of scary to stand in-between. These characters were some of my first real exposure to "bad guys." I was sheltered as a child and Star Wars was the first film to ever introduce me to concepts of evil, death and torture. Standing between them I felt like I was a child once awe of the world and its potential dangers. After this picture was taken I thanked the actors (obviously not the original) and laughed at myself. "I am such a geek," I stated to my husband. He replied, "Yes, and all the other Geeks are getting quite a kick out of you. Not many pretty gals come to these things...or many young girls for that matter." Looking around there were a TON of boys and a few families but not many girls my age or younger. Perhaps it was just our time slot?

This is the closest I will EVER come to Harrison Ford. Sigh. (For those non Star Wars people- Harrison Ford played a character named Han Solo. In this he was frozen in carbonate by Darth Vadar...OK yes, case closed..I am a Geek...BUT I also love Audrey Hepburn...Just had to throw that in there to justify my balance. Ha!:)


nyssa said...

well, you just described our whole halloween. every halloween, in truth but this one was particularly bad. My 9 year old wanted to be a fox pirate, so I did her face in a little make up ( she couldn't stand the fox rubber nose so we improvised) and she had a pirate hat on.

she was barely holding in the tears. The minute she was fully dressed her mood changed and she was clearly uncomfortable. She ended up swiping at my hubby, her daddy and it all went downhill from there. She felt terrible she had lashed out physically but he had said she should wear her pirate hat or nobody would know what she was :/

I told her ( because I have a memory as long as an elephant's and I remember this halloween feeling ( I don't dress up anymore because of it) that she did not have to wear the hat.

The make up felt "burny" to her. We could only go to houses that had NO yellow because yellow makes her sick. She would only go to houses where there were no kids and no person outside the house. She wouldn't go to houses where there was a sad looking pumpkin. She had a miserable time so we cut it short and I kept telling her I completely understood how awful she felt.

so, she decided to hand out treats when kids came to our door but only to the really little kids. She ended up loving that part.

She decided today on our walk to school ( homeschooling is starting either in January or next September) that next year she would get dressed up in a comfortable onesie and be a bunny or something and just hand out treats.

It was so hard to see how she struggled and this year a bit more because as she grows older, she feels and sees the differences between her and other kids.

she is still wiped from it. I could barely get her out of bed this morning.

I'll email you a picture of her in costume. The picture shows more than words can.

Thank you for writing this so beautifully and describing it beautifully and clearly. I'm sending it to my husband.

Love you xox

Kmarie said...

Awwww...she looked adorable but so did I often too and had a miserable time. I remember being 5 and a clown and my reflection scared myself...some trick or treaters came to the door and I hid under our kitchen mother said it took hours to actually get me out...I think they finally coaxed me with a treat and guaranties that I could change and go to bed... So I understand...

Handing out treats in a comphy costume minimizes it a lot! My problem is that I think a costume is comphy till half an hour in and then I don't want to get out of it because I went to all the effort so I force myself to be uncomfortable in my own home...and every year after I get out of it I have friends stop by later asking where my costume is...and it drives me crazy:) This year we went out to a restaurant- thought it would be easier but it wasn't. Yea, it takes me about two days to recover...the first day after sensory sickness I have to stay in bed and just take rest and watch shows...sigh.

You are welcome!:) Glad it helped and thanks for sharing your story and furthering the dialogue!
Love to you too. xoxo

Rae said...

This makes so much sense and explains why I've felt lethargic and nauseated since Halloween for no identifiable reason other than I really overdid it.

Kmarie said...

Rae: Hope you feel better soon! glad it helps explain it! usually we need a couple kind to yourself and take it easy:)

S.H. said...

Thank you for sharing your experience - I really had no idea it could be so severe. I have only experienced this on a very small scale and chalked it up more to being extremely introverted and somewhat sensitive to my environment. Unless I experienced a full on panic attack I was more affected psychologically, feeling paranoid and scattered. Our brains can be so annoying sometimes, yet I look at my experiences as being part of the whole survival "flight or fight" deal but I can see how your experiences are so much bigger than that - your brain being wired a bit differently. I hope that you are feeling better and I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to learn more about you and your family

Kmarie said...

S.H. Thank you for responding...yea, I think people don't see it because I contain most till I am in a safe place and do not no wonder some accuse me of not being autistic...they have NO IDEA> I could understand only having it psychologically. Yes they can! Different messages are frustrating at times! Thank you- I am also fortunate to learn about your experiences!

Ashe said...

I've gotten a bit overloaded a few times, but not sick from Halloween like I do from my weird morning sickness or smell sensitivities. But the overload is bad enough. It puts me on auto-pilot. So while I'm walking straight and making all the right replies to conversation, I'm not going to pick up on more subtle things like my kid putting a bunch of rocks in his pocket or eating a wrapper. I can see it but it doesn't really register what is happening. Just a wee bit embarrassing.

My last few Halloweens have had very casual and comfortable costumes. My parents bought a shirt that reads "this is my zombie killing shirt", so I just make my hair all messy, put on some worn jeans, and I'm good to go as an apocalyptic slayer of undead. Eye shadow doesn't bother my eyes like liner or mascara, so this past time I made big, black smears around my eyes and told people I lost to a zombie. :D

Kmarie said...

Ashe: Man I hate smell sensitivities!!! I go into auto pilot too!!! It can be awkward - the worst is when I am on auto pilot during an accident...i look neglectful or uncaring about certain details that perhaps should not be overlooked but I am just dealing with whatever is in front of me

Lol great costume idea!:) Funny- I can't wear eyeshadows but am fine with liners and mascara! I smudge in the liners if I ever want a eyeshadow look:) lol. its funny what different sensory things are what!

Unknown said...

For me, costumes don't post much sensory sickness for me. I love elaborate costumes and showing them off. Commanding attention is one of my specialties. Lack of stimulation, information coming too fast, and the smells of certain food make me sick. I feel tired, I can't focus, and I get jittery. (Yes, tired and jittery at the same time.) People would readily accuse me of seeking attention because I am an extrovert, but attention is the last thing I want or need when I am sensory sick. I am also very prone to headaches. A headache is usually a sign of sensory sickness for me. However, the time it takes me to walk to the nurse to get Advil is usually the recovery time I need.

Kmarie said...

I am glad costumes don't do that for you as they are so fun!!!!! So do you have SPD? Do you find more often then not you crave sensory overload instead of get overwhelmed by it? I understand what you mean by tired and jittery at the same time- happens to me a lot! And I get what you mean about not wanting attention when sensory sick...attention is the worst!
glad you friend reprieve and know what to do!:)

Unknown said...

There are different types of sensory overload. I seek certain types fervently and avoid others like the plague. I am a high sensation seeker according to Dr. Elaine Aron's test.

For me, it is all about control, association, and quality. I love the sound of a full concert band tapping into the depths of their lungs in unison. The percussion line becomes my heartbeat, the harmonies fill the space, and the melodies soar through the air. The sound of a concert band is a controlled sound. After recitals, I want to mingle with random people and congratulate the others on a performance well done (but I can't because my introverted parents drag me home right after). This is because, when I play with a concert band, I am in control, to some extent, of how the band sounds. I also associate the band with fun memories and contributing to something bigger than myself. I also find that, even with small beginning bands, the sound of a concert band is a sublime thing of beauty. I don't get the same feeling with other ensembles, just with concert bands.

However, I get more sick in a setting like a standardized testing room. I feel like I'm strapped to my chair, can't move, and get that tired/jittery feeling. I don't feel in control, like I am at the mercy of the person administering the test and my fellow testers, and I associate standardized testing with failure and mental exhaustion. (The human brain uses 20% of the body's energy despite being 2% of the body's mass.) The quality of stimulation I get from a testing room is sub-par at best. The questions are pointless, annoying, and not the fun intellectual stimulation I crave. The graphs are sometimes filled in with patterns that move and float before my eyes, making them very difficult if not impossible to read. The lights make my eyes hurt and I can't escape into pleasant stimuli during these tests. In this case, I get sick because I am not stimulated enough and in all the wrong ways.

I hope this helps.

Kmarie said...

I love Elaine Aron...her books are awesome! And I had my HSP diagnosis before anything else:) Lol- I didn't even score on on her sensation seeker test! But what you say makes sense and my sister is like that!
Maybe your parents could let you have more time alone at those experiences and arrange to pick you up? That is what I try to do for my older daughter at times as she is more extroverted than I. ...or maybe there is a way to have a middle ground and understanding?:)
I loved concerts as a teen for the same reason but now I can't go...I have become more sensitive as I have aged as well as with kids and probably hormones! Lol:)

I hate standardized testing for many reasons among what you have mentioned. Its not right to judge the learning, wisdom and beauty each person possesses by these tests. Instead we should be valuing people on who they are and giving support when the inevitable life tests come along and preparing people for these experiences instead...different tagent...but I understand what you feel in those rooms and fluorescent lights are the worst!:)

That does help me understand. thank you for your explanation. It also helps me understand sensory seeking more as I do not experience that aspect myself:)