According to Autism West Midlands, social overload is “being exposed to too much social interaction.” Socializing is a form of stimulus. We are looking at a person or text; we are hearing sounds; we are processing difficult verbal and non-verbal communication in our minds. As such, when we experience too much socializing, we can get overstimulated.
Over stimulation from socializing can look like:
-Ruminating on the social interaction.
-Feeling shaky and dizzy afterward.
-Experiencing post-social fatigue.
-Irritability and mood swings.
-Meltdowns and shutdowns.
If autistic people are constantly bombarded with these overstimulating social interactions, we may begin to steer clear of socializing. This is similar to avoiding certain clothing textures because they cause sensory pain or wearing noise cancellation headphones in loud situations.
Avoiding social settings does not necessarily mean that an autistic is afraid of social interactions. Feelings of dread, discomfort, and upset after socializing can also be the result of this over stimulation.
After repeated over stimulation and negative socializing experiences, the overload can lead to and/or join with social anxiety.
In its simplest definition, social anxiety is “an intense, persistent fear of being watched and judged by others” that “can affect work, school, and your other day-to-day activities” (NIMH). For autistic people, we may feel socially anxious because of traumatic past social events. These events can include repeated social overload, as well as past bullying, ABA therapy, abusive relationships, and more.
Knowing when we are experiencing social overload, social anxiety, or both simultaneously can help autistic people to tap into different coping strategies. This is a very individual experience, and it’s important to remember that what works for one autistic person may not work for another.