Columns Health and Wellbeing

Disability Looks Like This: On Sensory Overload, and making public spaces kinder

Artwork by Emer Sukonik

Imagine: you’re in Big Tesco on Magdalen Street and you’re terrified for your life.

No, really. You feel sick to your stomach. You just went in for oat milk, fruit, and bread and now you can’t find any of those things and you’re having a panic attack. All the ready meals and tins are lined up in neverending rows screaming information and choice at you. The lights are threateningly white and cold and you can’t see the sky. There’s so much to take in and your brain can’t hold all of it, so instead it drops everything and sort of flails about on the floor instead. So there you are, abandoned by your brain in Aisle 6. A man is looking at you funny because for the last forty seconds you’ve been pacing up and down in front of the dairy-free milks, so you just grab one without looking and power-walk in the direction of the self checkout with your eyes closed. When you’re walking home you realise you’ve left Tesco with absolutely nothing that you went there for in the first place, but you’re just happy not to feel overwhelmed any more. 

This is what sensory overload feels like. Usually I absolutely love a trip to big Tesco – who doesn’t – but if I am alone there or having a particularly bad day it all becomes too much, and not only because the eerily silent and bright lower floor is inherently quite a spooky, liminal space. It’s happened to me since childhood because of my learning difficulties – being neurodivergent means that I’m more sensitive to becoming overwhelmed. For me, it mostly happens in shops and busy places, and I have quite a few stories which I like telling as laughable anecdotes. There’s the time in Pret where I stared at the cashier for thirty straight seconds without saying anything before panicking, thrusting a £20 note at him, and running away before he could give me the change, or the time in the Primark in Westgate where I went up and down the escalator about five times to calm myself down. There’s… basically every single time I’ve cried in Fever (although realistically, who hasn’t?). But usually it looks something like the time my mum and I went shopping right before the first lockdown last year, and I walked around Sainsbury’s clasping her hand like a child, my mind sent into a tailspin because of how busy it was, how empty the shelves were, how the air was thick with fear, so thick it was hard to walk through. 

Anyone can experience sensory overload. But it’s more frequent in neurodivergent people, like autistic people or people with ADHD, dyspraxia, dyslexia, or other sensory processing disorders. It happens when the brain is receiving too much sensory information for it to successfully process, and those with neurodivergent brains often have lower thresholds for becoming sensorily overloaded. Some studies have even hypothesized that children who experience sensory overload frequently have differently structured brains to those who do not. It can manifest in symptoms like panic attacks, more general anxiety, irritability, and sensitivity to less obvious things, like the clothes you are wearing or the temperature that day.

Interestingly, big shops, supermarkets, train stations, and airports seem to be where a lot of people experience either panic attacks or sensory overload. Although much of his activist work has been criticised recently for appearing exclusionary of those with more stigmatised mental illnesses, Matt Haig has made the interesting point in his book Notes on a Nervous Planet that panic attacks in supermarkets appear to be quite a common phenomenon. This makes a lot of sense – supermarkets and busy shopping centers are saturated with information, bright unnatural light, noise, different smells, people, and an overwhelming array of choices. Interestingly, this effect got far worse during the pandemic for me, despite the fact that far fewer people were allowed in shops at once. I think that because everyone was so tense with each other, I felt far more anxious that I was being watched or judged, and that I had to precisely monitor my behaviour. And, as everyone experiences it and reacts to it differently, I’m more fortunate than others in that I tend to just pace around and panic a bit. Those who express their sensory overload in ways society might consider more ‘disruptive’, like through sounds or movement, are often subject to verbal abuse or rough treatment by those around them, or even security guards and police.

To help a person experiencing sensory overload, one of the most crucial things is that you shouldn’t then add to the sensory panic they’re experiencing, which means not touching them without their consent, speaking aggressively to them, or telling them to calm down. The best thing you can do for them is calmly and helpfully get them to a quieter place, away from the sources of sensory stimulation, where they can calm down in their own time. The sunflower lanyard, which during the coronavirus pandemic has often been worn by those who are mask-exempt, but is typically used to signify an invisible disability, can be really useful for those who might experience sensory overload in public spaces. The lanyard, while totally optional to wear, is meant to notify others that someone has an invisible disability, and therefore might need additional support, help, or time when shopping or out and about. If you see someone wearing one of these lanyards, or anything else indicating that they have an invisible disability, it’s important to be mindful of them. 

In general, I think society would benefit a lot from treating people who are experiencing panic in public places a lot better; while I treat it humorously sometimes, the worst thing about sensory overload for me is that after I’ve experienced it I often feel absolutely mortified to have “embarrassed myself” in front of people. I think there’s a culture in the UK of drawing as little attention to yourself as you can in public, keeping ‘a stiff upper lip’, and not asking for help, which ultimately harms everyone, but especially disabled people who often find it difficult to appear neurotypical in public, or may require assistance. A lot of neurodivergent people have either been bullied or made to feel embarrassed about the way their minds work, which leads to ‘masking’ – deliberately trying to act neurotypical to appear ‘normal’ and blend in socially, or redirect attention away from themselves. But this can be actively really harmful when it comes to seeking help for feelings or behaviours we can’t control. If we make public spaces kinder and more mindful, I could just go and ask for help rather than go up and down the Primark escalator 5 times – I think that would be a win for everyone, really. We could all use the reminder that asking for help is good, and should never be seen as embarrassing; so hopefully with some more awareness we can make our public spaces kinder.

Ellie Redpath

I'm Ellie (she/her), a third year classicist at Magdalen and your disability columnist for this year! Activism and writing are my passions so I'm hoping to combine them in this column. You can usually find me procrastinating in one way or another - working on things with the SU Women's Campaign, dreaming of the day charity shops can open again, and spending far too much time on Twitter.