Updated: Oct 13, 2022
What is Sensory Overload and How Can You Prevent It?
Sensory overload happens when there is too much information and input being experienced. Too noisy, too crowded, too much activity, too bright; overwhelming smells, sounds, sights, tastes, or touch. Sensations like these are experienced by a child’s body but processed by their brain. When there is too much input, the brain can’t handle it. That’s when a child’s brain shuts down and their ability to manage things goes haywire.
When a child is in meltdown, there is nothing to do but be with them, keep them safe, and ride out the storm. But there are things we can do to prevent sensory overload from happening, or at least to reduce its severity. We can structure the home environment to be a soothing space, and we can provide supports for when our child must be away from that environment.
The First Five Senses
First, let’s go through the senses and figure out how they can affect us.
See—Whatever we see enters through our eyes into our brain. Too much of certain kinds of visual things can overload or irritate us. Some examples are: fluorescent or flickering lights; too much movement of people around us; distractions on the floor or walls, such as a busy pattern on the carpet or too many decorations on the wall.
Hear—Any noises can be upsetting or overwhelming if they are unexpected or too loud. Some examples are: fire engine or police sirens; a whirring air conditioner or fan; the buzzing of the lights; people around you who are talking or making annoying chewing sounds.
Taste—We all have preferences that are related to flavor and texture. Some examples are: foods that are too soft or too crunchy; different brands than what we are used to; too hot or too cold.
Touch—This can be sensations in our hands or in other parts of our body. Some examples are: scratchy fabrics; labels on clothes; seams on socks; sticky things like glue or pudding; dirty things like mud;
Smell—This one can be more subtle, and can be harder to figure out. Some examples are: cooking odors; perfumes or aftershaves; exhaust fumes; smells of certain metals or plastics.
Note: There are three additional senses that we will address in future blogs: proprioception, vestibular, and interoception. Be sure to check these blog posts out, as these are, arguably, the most important senses to consider when looking for ways to help.
So, how can we help ourselves or our children deal with overwhelming sensory input? The key is awareness. Be aware of situations that might potentially be overwhelming, then take steps to prepare the individual, as well as protect them.
If you are going somewhere that is loud, bright, smelly, etc., prepare by talking about it. Make a list of the sensations that might occur and discuss what you can do to minimize their impact.
Have supportive items available, e.g., sunglasses, headphones, a sweet-smelling stick of lavender, a selection of preferred snacks, etc.
Respect the individual’s sensory experience. Even if you don’t experience discomfort, the other person does. Be supportive and let them know you understand and want to help, even if you can’t make it go away.
Have an escape route or safe space planned. If you are going to a party at someone’s house, find out in advance if there is a separate room where your child can go to calm down if things get too loud.
Sensory overload is one of the things most often cited by autistic individuals as being a factor in meltdowns or severe upsets. Be aware and be prepared, and remember that your child is working hard to make their way in a world that isn’t very autism-friendly.
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