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[GUEST POST] Special Needs in Strange Worlds: Beth Cato (THE CLOCKWORK CROWN) on Sensory Overload

Beth Cato hails from Hanford, California, but currently writes and bakes cookies in a lair west of Phoenix, Arizona. She shares the household with a hockey-loving husband, a numbers-obsessed son, and a cat the size of a canned ham.

Beth’s short fiction can be found in Orson Scott Card’s InterGalactic Medicine Show, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and many other magazines. The Clockwork Dagger is her first novel. The sequel, The Clockwork Crown, will be released in June 2015.

Follow her at and on Twitter at @BethCato.

Sensory Overload

by Beth Cato

In my debut novel The Clockwork Dagger, my heroine, Octavia Leander, is a medician. She practices healing magic that is channeled directly from a world tree known as the Lady. As the lead character, of course, her powers can’t be regarded as average. She’s overpowered. Other medicians require an extended time of prayer and meditation for the Lady to intercede on a patient’s behalf; Octavia receives an instant response. She still must apply specific herbs to heal maladies, but she has a natural knack for knowing the exact dose needed for the job.

World-building isn’t just about power, though. It’s also about limitations. In the words of the Robin Williams as the Genie in Disney’s Aladdin: “Phenomenal cosmic powers! Itty bitty living space!”

Octavia’s cosmic healing powers needed a counterbalance. The finite nature of her herbs plays a partial role. A recent war has created a major shortage of the Lady’s blessed herbs, and her personal supply is very limited. However, I needed to do something more. I needed her power to be hobbled internally as well as externally.

You often hear the saying, “Write what you know.” I don’t have firsthand experience with healing magic (darn it), but I do know about sensory overloads because of my son, Nicholas. He is high-functioning autistic. He’s one of the happiest, giggliest kids I’ve ever encountered, but that changes when he’s in public and experiences total sensory overload.

There are a lot of misperceptions about autism out there. Some people think that autistics are ’emotionally dead’ because they avoid eye contact and often experience difficulty with social responses. In my son, I see the opposite–he strongly empathizes with everyone, soaks in those emotions, then explodes. (A caveat: as the saying goes, ‘If you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person.’ It’s called a spectrum for a reason.)

In a crowd, my happy, bouncy child becomes a quivering, huddled ball. He covers his ears. He screams because that helps to block out the even worse noise that is flooding his brain. The bothersome sound doesn’t have to be loud, either. Certain soft buzzes and pitches make him extremely anxious, like an air conditioner clicking on or the quiet tick of a kitchen timer–things a lot of people barely notice.

His reaction is terrifying for me. He’ll huddle–stop in the middle of a busy street–or bolt, blindly running toward traffic or even into a concrete wall. I’ve had my own battles with social anxiety and agoraphobia. It’s a different sort of sensory overload, but I understand the anxiety and panic aspect.

Between my own experience and watching my son, I understood how Octavia’s phenomenal magic could also constrain her.


The dog was but a puppy, round tummy swaying and tail wagging. It had whirled in the middle of the busy roadway and then chased after a chugging steam car. Along the elevated wooden boardwalk on the other side of the road, a little girl cried, tears leaving clean streaks in the grey filth of her face. A broken leash draped from her hand. Even through the port side din of bells and motors and murmuring humanity, Octavia could hear the joyful barks of the puppy.

She also heard the sharp crunch and the guttural howl. Seconds later, the claxons and discordant notes of fresh trauma rang faintly in her ears.

Most medicians require a magical circle and an initiated connection with the Lady to hear trauma. Not so with Octavia. She can hear dim music from everyone around her, but if someone suffers from an open wound, the blood screams at her.

Because of this, she dreads cities and the overwhelming crush of people and their needs.


In the press of humanity, Octavia found it hard to know which way was which. There were too many clashing hums of music, too many conflicting smells. Octavia detected the emptiness of amputated limbs, the weak notes of hunger, the distorted wails of severe infection. Alone in the crowd, Octavia would have hunkered against a wall and fought the urge to scream to block out the disorienting burble.

Octavia’s greatest weakness is also her greatest strength: she wants to stop suffering and save everyone. The people around her may not even know they are ill, but their bodies plead in their need. Octavia is helpless against it.

I am kinder as a parent than I am as an author. By the time my son was five, we figured out the best way for him to cope in public was for him to wear noise-canceling headphones, like the sort worn for a shooting range. He can still hear us, but noises are blunted to a tolerable level. With his trusty headphones on, he can attend Arizona Coyotes games and cheer along with thousands of other people.

Octavia isn’t as fortunate as she copes with the public. She’s thrust into a world where her reputation as a medician has become known, even as her herb supply dwindles. The war has ended, but the people around her are starving, diseased, and suffering.

Her powers may be cosmic, but her ability to help the suffering masses is itty bitty indeed.

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