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Part 4 - Self-protection & Overwhelm

Updated: Mar 24, 2023

Creating Safer Events and Spaces for Neurodivergent Dancers Series:

Part 4 - Self-Protection & Overwhelm

Part 4 - Self-Protection & Overwhelm

Four hundred plus dancers from across the United States gathered at a weekend workshop and partner dance event. At the Friday night welcome dance the floor was abuzz with dancers excited to be there. Mid-song, the music suddenly screeched to a halt. Dancers dropped their frames and turned, searching for what caused the interruption. Without music, four-hundred-something voices shattered into the silence. I could hear hundreds of individual voices, and the unison of all the voices at once. It was like hearing a glass hit the floor in one loud crack. While simultaneously hearing four-hundred-something shards of noise piercing my eardrums at slight offsets. My shoulders jumped up and my hands covered my ears to shut out the sudden ear-splitting assault.

Measured, “in kind” sensory responses are the majority of sensory responses that are socially defined as acceptable. Savoring a bite of birthday cake, relaxing into a hug with another dancer, or saying “ouch!” when someone steps on your toes are all generally accepted sensory responses. The story above where I instinctively covered my ears—a flight response—to suddenly loud and echoing voices is an example of being highly responsive to sound. When one’s sensory safety thresholds are exceeded, the result is frequently a self-protective response which can become a state of overwhelm or shutdown.

Past trauma is a common trigger for a self-protective responses for all neurotypes. Especially for people with sensory processing differences, a survival response can also be triggered without a past trauma. Responses may appear to be out of proportion to what is physically happening in the present moment, but they aren’t out of proportion to the person’s intense internal experience. When a neurodivergent person’s sensory safety threshold is exceeded, their nervous system processes sensation differently and is more likely to trigger a flight, flight, freeze, or fawn response. This survival response is often labeled as out of proportion or overblown. It’s not usually treated as a socially acceptable response.

Part of an amplified internal experience for some neurodivergent people is that memory, recall, and time perception work by association instead of on a timeline. This particular neurodivergent difference can exist on its own, or it can intersect with sensory processing differences (and other differences). Having a relationship with time that works based on association instead of linearly is similar to what you might experience when you encounter a scent from your childhood that immediately takes you back to that moment when you experienced that scent years ago. You may be reliving that past experience in the present moment, and linear time is irrelevant to the current felt experience. For those who experience time by association, a sensory experience may be amplified to include all the past times the same sensation was experienced.

If a sensory experience is triggered in the present and then amplifies a neurological state of self-protection, the neurological state may cause a systemic overwhelm or shutdown. These states are often referred to as neurodivergent shutdowns and meltdowns. Shutdowns and meltdowns are patterned neurological responses, proportional to a person’s lived internal experience and outside of one’s conscious control. Neurodivergent people commonly have a strong need to control their sensory environments because they are trying to prevent a systemic state of overwhelm or shutdown. When in a neurological survival state of overwhelm or shutdown the rational part of the brain is often disabled and the instinctual part of the brain is running the show. In this state, memory lapses can occur, and patterned instinctual behaviors of self-preservation can take over.

It can be immensely helpful to understand a neurodivergent person’s loss of self-control is because their biological system has flipped a self-protective switch. It can be scary and disconcerting to be in this state. When in this state, other people’s reactions can increase the felt sense of danger (via invalidating their experience, becoming defensive, or confrontational) causing the intensity to increase. It is preferable to support a person in this state in re-establishing a felt sense of safety. Each person’s path back to a felt sense of safety is different. Unless you already know what works for a particular person, some options you might offer include: honoring their boundaries, giving the space, validating their experience even if it’s different from your own, assisting them in getting to a safer space, removing the perceived threat, supporting their self-soothing and coping skills (including offering a quiet space away from other people if that is what they want). Save logic and reasoning out a problem for a later time when they have more capacity and regulation. This is not the time for complex negotiation or problem solving.

Looking at the word with an understanding of the wide spectrum of sensory experiences will help us all to better understand each other and the different impacts our sensory responses have on ourselves and each other.

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