The Sensory Hell of the Lunchroom

Silhouettes of red flame with snaking tendrils surround a kid. A tray of food is in the foreground.
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Needless to say, the dining hall, as well as being busy, crowded and a source of multiple odours, was also very noisy, as trays were picked up and clattered back down, cutlery jangled, and metal serving dishes clanged against metal hot plates. Meanwhile, the children, squeezed into rows of tiny seats bolted on to collapsible dining tables, grew louder and louder to make themselves heard over the racket. Indeed, the lunch queue alone can be the place where sensory problems ‘can turn into a nightmare’ (Sainsbury 2009, p.99). Perhaps unsurprisingly, therefore, all of the child contributors to this book – Grace, James, Rose and Zack – identified noise and crowds as being the most difficult aspects of school from a sensory point of view.

Inclusive Education for Autistic Children: Helping Children and Young People to Learn and Flourish in the Classroom

Indeed, the school environment can present autistic children with a multi-sensory onslaught in terms of sounds, smells, textures and visual impacts that constitutes both a distraction and a source of discomfort (Ashburner, Ziviani and Rodger 2008; Caldwell 2008). There was also clear evidence from my own study that sensory issues, and noise in particular, can be highly exclusionary factors for autistic children in schools.

Inclusive Education for Autistic Children: Helping Children and Young People to Learn and Flourish in the Classroom

A discussion with neurodivergent coworkers brought up how overwhelming school lunch was for many of us, and likewise the group dining at company meetups. I like to use the Brian Wilson biopic, “Love and Mercy”, to demonstrate how overwhelming dining at a crowded table can be. It has a very relatable dinner scene where Wilson is overwhelmed by the overlapping noises of utensils and conversation.

Love & Mercy: Dinner utensils scene

Getting lunch is a trip through “sensory hell” for many neurodivergent students.

Sensory Hell is the opposite of something being stimmy. It is utterly and totally unbearable.

Maybe you’re thinking of the classic scenario of the autistic person melting down in a busy grocery store, and it’s true that grocery stores are often considered tools of the devil by autistic people. But anything can be a sensory hell.

7 Cool Aspects of Autistic Culture » NeuroClastic

Design for neurological pluralism. Let neurodivergent students eat without overloading them, melting them down, and burning them out.

This scene is quite similar to how I experience an autism sensory overload. When sounds, lights, clothing or social interaction can become painful to me. When it goes on long enough it can create what is called a meltdown or activation of the “fight-flight-freeze-tend-befriend” (formerly known as “fight or flight”) response and activation of the HPA axis; a “there is a threat in the environment” adrenaline-cortisol surge.

This makes seemingly benign noises a threat to my well-being and quite possibly real physical danger to my physiology. Benign noises become painful, and if left unchecked, enough to trigger a system reaction reserved for severe dangers. This is what days can become like on a regular basis for myself and many on the spectrum.

“Let me stick a hot poker in your hand, ok? Now I want you to remain calm.”

That is the real rub of the experience of sensory meltdowns. The misunderstanding that someone with Autism is just behaving badly, spoiled or crazy. When the sensory overwhelm is an actual and very real painful experience. It seems absurd to most people that the noise of going to a grocery store could possibly be “painful” to anyone. So most people assume the adults or children just want attention, or they can’t control their behavior. In work situations I get accused of all kinds of things. And when I leave a noisy situation like a party to step out to take a break, people will notice that I’m “upset”. They will assume or worry that I must be upset at something or someone. And that’s just if I do take a break. If I can’t take a break or get my life out of proper oscillations and can’t avoid noise or sensory/emotional overload, then I can get snappy, defensive, irritated and under very unfortunate circumstances even hostile.

What the stress of noise means, in the autism’s world of an over-sensitive physiology and ramped up stress experiences, is that that pain is warning of us of real damage being created in our bodies. So this anxiety and reactivity isn’t necessarily just perceived but is actually happening. We are not being overly dramatic or a brat (what those with Autism are often accused of). Damage to our physiology is what noise can actually do.

Autistic Traits and Experiences in “Love and Mercy” The Brian Wilson Story – The Peripheral Minds of Autism

Karla Fisher has a great visual she uses for IEP advocacy called “Our breaks are not like NT breaks.” She points out that, for an autistic person, lunch and recess can be the most stressful times of the day.

I (,) Object – Nightengale of Samarkand

Formal confirmation of autistic common knowledge is exactly the kind of research we need out there. I am so happy when an academic paper states the obvious (at least obvious to us autistics) because it means there is finally an information source that “the system” will respect. Do I wish people would actually listen to actual autistics? Most definitely, I do. But until we manage to shift that Overton window halfway across the wall, I rejoice to see our actual life experiences written about accurately in scientific journals.

I was especially thrilled reading Rebecca Wood’s research, recently published in the journal Educational Review. In her article, “The wrong kind of noise: understanding and valuing the communication of autistic children in schools,” Woods uncovers something we autistic adults have been complaining about for so long: We are not “allowed” to do the same things non-autistic children do. They are allowed to be so loud we cannot bear to be in the same lunchroom with them, but we are silenced if we are even a fraction as loud as the non-autistic people.

In Silence and in Sound: Autistics Do Not Benefit From Presumptions of Deficit — THINKING PERSON’S GUIDE TO AUTISM

The number of autistic young people who stop attending mainstream schools appears to be rising.

My research suggests these absent pupils are not rejecting learning but rejecting a setting that makes it impossible for them to learn.

We need to change the circumstances.

Walk in My Shoes – The Donaldson Trust

What led up to you feeling that sense of dread and fear as you approached school?

Maybe the fact that I was getting closer to it.

Walk In My Shoes
Looking down a school hallway toward a lunchroom of burning tables

Further reading,

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Published by Ryan Boren

#ActuallyAutistic retired technologist turned wannabe-sociologist. Equity literate education, respectfully connected parenting, passion-based learning, indie ed-tech, neurodiversity, social model of disability, design for real life, inclusion, open web, open source. he/they

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