How do you react to the sounds of a shopping centre?
For most of us, rustling bags, coins dropping, perfume bottles spraying or people eating is part of our everyday – it doesn’t bother us.
But for people with autism, overstimulation is their reality.
Imagine strolling through a shopping centre and focus on everything you’d experience: The smells, the sights, the sounds, the things to touch. Now imagine all those sensations amplified. Extremely amplified.
It might look a little something like this:
Being over or under-sensitive when processing everyday sensory information is common for people with autism.
If you walk through a store, you may not even notice the spray of a perfume bottle or the smell it leaves behind.
But for someone with autism, it may be overwhelming.
Mark Lever, Chief Executive of the National Autistic Society, said that half of all autistic people and their families ‘sometimes or often’ do not leave their houses because they are worried about how others will respond to their autism.
The public want to be empathetic to autistic people, but often they just don’t ‘see’ the condition and may mistake an autistic person melting down in public for someone being deliberately disruptive.
But it doesn’t have to be like this.
In order to help people gain a deeper understanding, The National Autistic Society last year released a gripping Virtual Reality video giving a vivid glimpse into the life of an autistic child.
Seen through the eyes of a ten-year-old boy with autism, the video – based on real experiences in consultation with autistic people – takes viewers through a shopping centre, allowing them to experience what living with autism can feel like.
Warning: This film contains loud, sudden noises, flashing lights and bright colours.
After becoming overwhelmed by his surroundings – bright coloured balloons, flashing lights and loud noises – the boy struggles with his mother as onlookers stare.
At the end of the video, he explains to viewers: “I’m not naughty, I’m autistic.”
The video was released as part of the Too Much Information (TMI) public awareness campaign in June 2016.
Alex Marshall, the ten-year-old autistic star of the campaign film said at the time:
I hate being in crowds and surrounded by too many people. Sometimes I need a lot of room, and when someone brushes past me, it’s as bad as someone pushing me. Small things can make me overwhelmed and have a meltdown.
As part of World Autism Awareness Week, which will run from March 27 until April 2, The National Autistic Society Scotland will be touring the north-east with the VR installation to raise awareness.
The tour will kick off at Aberdeen Airport today. Aberdeen Donside MSP Mark McDonald, whose son is autistic, helped to bring the virtual reality experience to the area.
Encouraging as many non-autistic people as possible to experience the initiative, he said in a statement:
This experience is likely to be the closest feeling you can get of what it is like to try and cope with your surroundings when you have autism.
One of the most challenging aspects of trying to help an autistic person is understanding how they see, hear and experience their surroundings.
Most of us aren’t bothered by background noise or peripheral lights, but for some people on the autistic spectrum it really doesn’t take much to trigger a terrifying flood of anxiety and unease in their environment.
More than 1 in 100 people are on the autism spectrum. This means that, for over 700,000 people living in the UK and 3.5 million Americans, hearing, seeing and feeling the world often happens in a more intense, overloaded way.
People on the autistic spectrum often find social situations difficult, struggling to filter out everyday sounds, smells and sights other people may not even notice. They can feel overwhelmed by ‘too much information’, particularly when out in public.
The world can feel like a terrifying place. And for their families, who often are on the receiving end of judgemental looks and tuts, it can make life feel lonely and isolated.
While 95.5 per cent of people in the UK have heard of autism, only 16.6 per cent of autistic people and their families said the public understands how autism affects their behaviour.
We need to raise awareness.
Through the virtual reality video, we realise how every single sight, sound and stare can be overwhelming.
Autism is complex, and while not everyone is expected to be an expert, basic understanding can go a long way and transform lives.
It’s important that we all understand the effects of autism so that we can build a more compassionate world.
For more information visit The National Autistic Society.