Filtering my World — a Story About Sensory Overload

Autism and ADD: A glimpse into what it’s like to get a bit too much sensory input per second

I don’t really tell anyone “I am hypersensitive”, or even “I’m very sensitive”. Literally, no one would interpret it remotely the way it is meant. I wish there was a better word for it… (and please DM me if you have one.) People hear “hypersensitive” and think “helpless”, or “helpless and even arrogant about it”.

What’s actually the case is that I simply have a pretty poor filter to the world.

Our filter to the outside world is like a semi-permeable membrane, checking the things your senses found and letting only certain information pass and enter the conscious mind. Other peoples senses might get the same amount of input, but those will be filtered, and only a part of that will arrive at the conscious mind — bam, here’s the most important gist out of the current input, and the brain goes, okay thanks man!, and goes on to organize that information.

The way people with normal filters process sensory information.

My filter is a bit more indecisive. It keeps going “Well, I dunno, this could be important, maybe… And this too, depending on how you look at it. With this, I have to say, I’m actually not sure what it means at all.” And then it just dumps all the information into my brain and my poor brain and I are standing in the coffee shop, with the task to order a drink, but someones shoelaces, someone else’s smell, someone else’s glance at me, the green glowing light on a button on the coffee machine and a slightly passive aggressive voice from somewhere in the back are things to think about.
Since my filter refused to filter, my brain now has to do it manually. “You’re supposed to order a coffee”, it says to itself. Everything seems extremely loud and way too close. And often really bright. When it’s too bright, I feel like I’m in some sort of distorted reality, where everything is too intense and you don’t know what anything means anymore. A bit like in a horror movie, there’s a constant sense of threat; things seem super close and then not, you hear something that you can’t classify, you see people looking at you and don’t know if it was extraordinary or a meaningless glance, and there are so many subliminal things going on simultaneously that you don’t understand what’s going on at all. There’s the sense that something unexpected could happen anytime.
I guess, whenever humans are in danger and strong fear arises, their nervous system starts noticing everything intensely and time seems to distort; there is more content per second. So perhaps vice-versa, if you perceive tons of things, and your filter lets lots of things through, you automatically feel slightly paranoid or even afraid.

“In order to order a coffee, you need to read the menu. Read — menu. Choose — coffee. Just — look — coffee. Choose.”, I gently remind myself. Wow, so many letters, they look like little… Anyways, coffee, wow, so many types of coffee, I don’t know what anything means, and I find decisions really hard, because there are so many factors to consider, and many of them take time, it’s kind of like you have to let the dough rise. Fighting to focus on the words and the decision. No time to let the dough rise, I think. I am slightly scared to talk to the man behind the counter, I mean, I don’t know him. He looks handsome and ferocious. Might he be slavic? Why would I think that? To what extent can you tell from someone’s phenotype whether they’re slavic? I just sort of panic-order a ginger tea, sit down and put my noise cancelling back on.

The way people with more permeable filters process sensory information.

In any case. Let’s assume it’s really just a difference in the way my filter works. Even if that were all that’s hidden behind “hypersensitivity”, it already makes living on this planet a whole different experience. For me, it’s a very vibrant, exciting, very adventurous and sensual experience. Overwhelming, for sure. So overwhelming that I have to design my life in a different way from many of my peers. I can’t take a blueprint of how an average 23-year old in Berlin lives their life, and fill it with my colors — I have to invent my own blueprint from scratch. Because in the wrong daily environment, I can literally feel disabled. A few years ago, I used to tell my closest friends over and over: “I feel like I’m not viable.” That my brain was thinking and feeling and sensing more that I could take. More pain, more thoughts, more questions, more violent emotions, more confusion than a single teenage girl could deal with. It paralyzed me and left me isolated and depressed.

I am strong, smart and high-functioning. I am assertive and ambitious and very kind-hearted. I’m not in danger of having a lame life, since I’ve already had, like, three careers. I have so many ideas and thoughts and feelings. I can detect if people are being fake, pretentious, manipulative, or insecure. I take in other people’s feelings and empathize and understand so much. I am independent and creative and highly adaptive.

I just have a shitty filter. I could say, I hate it, and some days, I do. Like when I need a nap after going to the supermarket. Or when I break down weeping after a party, because my system shuts down and I can’t understand what’s reality anymore.
But many days, I actually feel like the world is just intense and my system is one of those few ones that actually notices that. And as long as I design my daily life to serve my nervous system, as long as I make decisions to create an environment in which I thrive, I am very happy in a bright, colorful, confusing and never boring world.

Strong sensory filters that are good at prioritizing can help people to cope, quickly make friends, be at parties, be in groups, be extroverted, resilient, fast, assertive and decisive, lots of things. But a permeable filter helps me detect bullshit. Since so much enters my conscious mind, provoking thoughts and feelings and imaginations there, I can make very aware and informed decisions (although they might take a little longer). And I can use my impressions to stay clear of plastic conversations, plastic acquaintances, plastic jobs and plastic relationships. I will seek closeness to the things that feel enticing, magical, and healthy.

If everything around you enters your system, that will be a blessing, if those things are good for you.

Let me know if you are reminded of yourself or someone you know in this story. I believe in minds with open filters and I hate to see so many of them dis-abled by the wrong style of life and by people thinking “sensitivity” is a character flaw. It’s not a synonym for “helpless”, and I am proving everyone wrong who thought that, by radically helping out myself and others, making my own decisions about how I want to live.

With some alone-time, some noise-cancelling, and very little bullshit.

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