• 06.13.16

Experience Life Overload On The Autism Spectrum

Sensory overload can overwhelm people on the autism spectrum. To understand how that feels, just try this free VR simulation.

My ears are ringing as if a building fell right next to me, yet I can’t block out the quietest sound of change clanking in a purse. An alarm is going off. Something spilled. Lights flash. Those balloons look like they might attack me. I just want out.


So I remove my Cardboard headset, and life is easy and quiet again. Such is not the case for the 3.5 million people in this country who are on the autism spectrum, a point that will sink in if you try Autism TMI Virtual Reality Experience, a short film developed by The National Autistic Society, which is watchable in 360-degree YouTube, or Google Cardboard VR on iOS or Android.

Just two minutes long, the film highlighted by TNW allows you to freely look around a mall while waiting for your mom to get money out of the ATM. But this freedom of view, which generally makes virtual reality experiences feel more boundless than their 2-D film counterparts, is stifling, as the audio and video mix bombards you with sensory overload–an otherwise unseen symptom of autism which can explain the sudden tantrums of a seemingly stoic person.

It’s not the first time that autism awareness advocates have used videos to convey this message. Many people on the spectrum have produced their own experimental films to explain what they feel when clinical terminologies fall short. (Watch the short pasted below by YouTube user WeirdGirlCyndi to feel how watching the cartoon Transformers goes from delightful to tortuous, simply by how many people are in the room with her. It’s great.)

But these first-person experiences translate particularly well to VR video. Many VR zealots have argued that VR can be the ultimate empathy engine, for its ability to very literally put you into the life experience of someone else. Perhaps that sentiment is a bit overblown, even if nonprofits have had some early success using VR video to spur donations. But, much as WeirdGirlCyndi illustrated with her recut of Transformers, there are some human experiences that can only really be explained by experiencing them. And for that, VR seems like a natural fit.

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started, a simple way to give back every day.