January 28, 2021

Among all the features of autism, “cognitive overload” is the hardest for me to describe. Here’s why.

There are two ways for me to write about how something feels. Either I catch it in the moment, whipping out my phone to type a play-by-play, or I replay it later in my imagination, observing and describing the memory.

Cognitive overload, whether “live” or remembered, leaves no space for observation and description. By definition, it limits the possibility of thought.

Maybe it’s like drowning? I can’t tell. I can imagine cognitive overload, and try to ask myself, “Does this feel like drowning?” But if I’m imagining it fully, then I can’t even form the question, let alone answer it.

By itself in a vacuum, cognitive overload is not distressing to me. What causes distress is any little thing added on top – such as a question, a change in my environment, or a required action.

I suppose you could say that cognitive overload is like a load on a camel’s back. My number one priority, in that state, is to avoid any new straws.

P.S. I write from my personal experience as an autistic. What I share is not a substitute for advice from an autistic medical professional. Also, some of my opinions have changed since I first wrote them.