What Autism Can Teach Us About Overcoming Digital Burnout

Learning to cope in an age of digital overload

Credit: Artur Debat/Moment/Getty

“I“I remember when I was growing up, we didn’t have cell phones,” Marnie Kunz says wistfully. “I remember just checking the answering machine when you got home.” The New York-based entrepreneur and the founder of Runstreet, learned to handle texts and email, “but with social media [it] got to be too much. I turned off Facebook and Instagram notifications, but then sometimes, I’ll be organizing an event, go on Facebook to post it, and before I know it I’m looking at photos of someone’s family trip.”

Everywhere you look, there are signs that individuals, organizations, and entire societies are struggling with the challenge of information overload and digital distraction. According to the Pew Research Center, nearly 7 in 10 Americans feels overwhelmed by the volume of news media today — a phenomenon that, according to the integrative health guru Andrew Weil, “increases stress, with all of its predictable consequences for physical and emotional health.”

But the search for solutions is a race against the clock, because the problem of digital overload is steadily intensifying.

“The future is going to be more distracting for people who don’t have the tools to manage distraction,” predicts Nir Eyal, an expert on habit-forming technologies and the author of Hooked and the forthcoming Indistractable. “As products get better at predicting what you want, it will be harder to resist.”

But the demands of the digital world need not consign us to a catatonic state. It may still be possible to anticipate and manage the steady acceleration of incoming stimuli, if we adopt lessons from community of people who are already experts in handling overload: people with autism.

“Autism goes hand in hand with heightened sensory sensitivity,” says Ben Belek, a fellow at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem who has written extensively about autistic perception and identity. “Sensory stimuli that neurotypical (non-autistic) people might be absolutely comfortable with, or even ignorant of — such as a faint smell of perfume, a slightly flickering light, the low buzzing sound that a refrigerator makes — might be experienced by people on the autism spectrum as unbearably repugnant, blinding, or loud.”

That sensitivity means that many autistic people already experience the world with a heightened intensity. One recent meta-study found that between 42 and 88 percent of autistic people have sensory oversensitivity, which in turn drives the anxiety disorders that affect 42 to 79 percent of people with autism, according to another study.

“Certain noises, like shouting and loud music, can make me feel like I’m under attack,” says Jeremy, a twentysomething autistic man who works in tech and requested anonymity for this article. “It’s a bit like a computer’s CPU receiving instructions faster than it can process them.”

Many autism researchers and practitioners attribute overload to a lack of sensory “gating.” Jewel Crasta, an occupational therapist and psychophysiological researcher at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore, describes gating as “the neural mechanism by which the brain filters out irrelevant or redundant information in order to prevent sensory overload of higher cognitive functions. A simple example includes walking into a café and filtering out the background music or conversations when you step up to order. Although the background music and conversations occur at the same intensity, you can automatically filter it out, when you direct your attention to talking while ordering.”

To cope with this kind of bombardment, researchers, practitioners, and autistic people have developed a range of tools and strategies. One approach focuses on avoiding overload by improving autistic people’s ability to gate extraneous stimuli. “Mindfulness training and meditation are some of the ways we can improve our ability to focus attention,” Crasta says.

Other therapies focus on preventative measures that may decrease the likelihood, or frequency, of overload by reducing sensitivity. For example, an occupational therapist might use a specially designed sensory brush on the skin of an autistic child to reduce “tactile defensiveness” — that is, an aversion to certain kinds of touch.

Then, there are coping strategies for when overload hits. Jane Lawson, an autistic web developer who blogs at Janepedia, advocates for what she calls a “reset button”: a way of recovering from overstimulation. Her favorite reset button is the shower. “It’s just me, in an enclosed space, alone. All I can hear is the water.”

Jeremy also finds isolation to be the best antidote to overload. “It helps me regain my senses to be totally isolated from the noise (auditory and visual),” he says. “Sometimes, you just need to completely shut off your electronics and cut contact with other people, block out all sight and sound, in order to be alone with your own brain for a little while.”

Though Belek cautions that this analogy can have the “unhelpful implication of trivializing the very particular challenges associated with autism,” there are similarities between the autistic experience of sensory overload and the experience of digital overload among people who aren’t autistic. And there are plenty of lessons for neurotypical people to pick up.

“The concept that [digital overload] is a sensory issue is important,” says Crasta. She points to research showing that 5 to 10 percent of typically developing (non-disabled) children have some kind of sensory challenge, and notes that when these kinds of differences aren’t addressed, it can lead to anxiety, depression, or other problems. Even people with typical sensory function can have sensory sensitivities that may affect their tolerance of digital noise.

“We all have our sensory quirks,” Crasta observes. “Some people don’t like tags on the back of their shirt. Some people can’t tolerate the texture of certain foods or certain smells. They don’t affect our everyday behavior because we are able to overcome those sensations and get on with everyday life.”

But by increasing the frequency, variety, and intensity of incoming stimuli, the digital world has unearthed more sensory quirks: Maybe our great-great-grandparents would have been just as aggravated by the incessant “ping” of incoming email, but they never had to find out. Brains that can handle the job of filtering out noise in the offline world may find that the digital realm poses new challenges, because even neurotypical people experience declines in gating capacity when they’re tired or stressed — and the digital world can certainly be exhausting and stressful.

To make it easy to reset throughout the workday, consider a sensory box: a personal stash of tools that can help reduce stimuli or enable a sensory reset.

A professional sensory assessment can help people identify specific or particular sensory vulnerabilities. ‘“As individuals, our experiences are very different, even our genetic makeup is different and our brains are wired a little differently, so it’s going to be different for every individual,” Crasta observes. “That’s what I’ve learned working with children with autism — there’s no one recipe that works with everybody.”

Sensory assessments, like those used for autistic students, can identify high or low sensitivity to specific kinds of sound, sight, touch, or other sensations. For example, Crasta says, a patient might find that “my visual system tends to get overloaded easily, but my kinesthetic movement system is more calm, so maybe I need to use my movements to help me calm down when I’m visually overloaded.”

Understanding these kinds of differences makes it easier to identify the specific tools and tactics that can be helpful to someone struggling with digital overload — among which, Crasta suggests, are options like “quiet spaces with limited visual distractions, blue light instead of white light, an ergonomic chair to help with body positioning and the vestibular sense, and an overall relaxing environment.”

People who are sensitive to visual stimuli — all those bright phones and flashing screens — could experiment with the approaches that are suggested for autistic kids who have visual sensitivities, like tinted glasses that filter out part of the light spectrum, or replacing fluorescent or overhead lights with lamps, or trying incandescent, colored or low-wattage bulbs. All of these tactics are covered by Olga Bogdashina in her influential book on sensory issues in autism. Bogdashina also notes that the color and pattern of clothing can also be a source of visual noise, so that’s another potential frontier for adjustment and experimentation.

The same principle applies to other kinds of sensitivity. For those who experience digital overload as an excess of noise — all those pinging emails and notifications — the best bet could be reducing overall auditory stimulation. Sure, you could just mute all of your own devices, but that doesn’t save you from the rest of the office (or subway car). As an alternative to expensive noise-canceling headphones, sound-blocking earmuffs (like those used by construction workers) block out most ambient noise. (Earplugs work too, but they’re harder to slip out when a colleague steps into your office.)

Then there are interventions that can reduce sensitivity or improve gating. Crasta’s study on mindfulness and attention in autistic youths suggests meditation as a way of learning to focus attention. To reduce sensitivity, try a program of desensitization by picking one stimulus that drives you nuts, and then gradually increasing tolerance. For example, record your office-mate’s super annoying ringtone, then play it back to yourself at gradually increasing volume until it no longer makes you jump.

The key to applying these various tools and tactics is to consider overall sensory load. Bright overhead lights or scratchy clothing tags might pose no issue to someone relaxing at home on the weekend, but in the middle of a noisy office, surrounded by beeping devices and clacking keyboards, those little irritations add up. The same goes for digital stimuli.

And when people do reach the point of overload, they can turn to autism treatments that offer something akin to Jane Lawson’s “reset button.” Sensory integration therapy focuses on “calming and organizing an over-aroused nervous system,” as Bogdashina puts it. In essence, it’s about engaging in certain kinds of sensory activities that help people reset when they get overloaded. Some of the most commonly recommended options include bouncing on a big exercise ball, kneading putty or Play-doh, swinging or climbing, or pushing something heavy (which could even look like just pushing against a wall). Some autistic people like to reset with deep pressure — a tactic that inspired the weighted blankets that are now gaining in popularity as a sleep or anti-anxiety remedy for neurotypical people.

To make it easy to reset throughout the workday, consider a sensory box: a personal stash of tools that can help reduce stimuli or enable a sensory reset. A sensory box could contain earplugs or noise-blocking earmuffs, tinted glasses, a weighted lap pad, or tight vest, to provide a deep pressure “hug,” some silly putty, and perhaps a soft, tagless shirt to slip on if it’s one of those days where even your clothing becomes a source of irritation.

These sorts of measures will be vital in the years ahead as the level of stimuli we experience will continue to mount. Eyal is confident that although things may seem dire now, over the coming decades, we’ll develop tools to manage the digital demands on our attention. “The thing that humans are best at is adapting and adopting,” he says. “We adapt our behavior and we adopt new technology and that is how we get through everything. When Homo sapiens moved out of Africa and into Europe, we put on skins so we wouldn’t freeze. If you don’t have the skill set — if you aren’t one of the Homo sapiens who learned how to make a fur jacket — you aren’t going to make it in this new environment.”

In other words, Eyal says learning to manage a digital onslaught isn’t just good practice — it’ll be critical to surviving our era’s evolutionary leap.

Author, Remote Inc: How To Thrive at Work…Wherever You Are. Tech speaker. Writer & data journalist for Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review & more.

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