How to Manage Sensory Overload in Kids

How to Manage Sensory Overload in Kids

This content was updated for accuracy and relevance on 02/13/24

Anyone can struggle with sensory overload, including adults. Still, it’s more common among sensory sensitive children with autism, ADHD, sensory processing disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or other behavioral issues. Sensory overload refers to an overwhelming experience that occurs when a child‘s sensory system receives more input than it can process.

Our senses, such as sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell, play a crucial role in how we perceive and interact with the world. However, for some children, they may become overwhelmed by the abundance of sensory information bombarding them.

What is Sensory Overload?

So, what is sensory overload exactly? For example, one of the most common sensory symptoms is when an autistic child is having a tough time managing their emotions, stimulus, and sensory experience due to abnormal sensory processing difficulties and hypersensitivity to environmental stimuli. Individuals with Autism or those with other behavioral issues may often struggle in new environments or a sensory stimulus and have tantrums and meltdowns. It’s not because they want to garner attention, but because they are overwhelmed by their own emotions and have unusually sensitive sensory systems. Having a sensory issue that can lead to a sensory meltdown can be hard for a young person with an autism spectrum disorder. It is important to understand how they act when experiencing sensory overstimulation so they can manage their symptoms.

Sensory Overload Symptoms and Signs

To better understand what sensory overload is and how to deal with sensory overload, it can help to know what it looks like. While signs and symptoms can look different for each child, they generally include:

  • Anxiety or stress
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Irritability and frustration
  • Highly sensitive when it comes to touch and textures
  • Relentlessness
  • Need to cover face, eyes, ears

Sensory Sensitive Children and Autism

Sensory overload anxiety can happen to children who are just extra sensitive to overstimulation or on the spectrum. Even high-functioning and well-adjusted children are prone to the occasional meltdown due to sensory sensitivity. Their brains are still developing and learning how to respond to different sensory stimulation and sensory information.

For autistic children, sensory stimuli like:

  • Strong smells
  • Loud noises
  • Fluorescent lights
  • Learning to share and play
  • Unfamiliar surroundings
  • Any change in daily routine

All of these can be sensory overload triggers and lead to tantrums and outbursts.

Auditory overload and auditory sensory hypersensitivity are not uncommon for autistic children, especially when put in a sensory integration environment that is new, has sensory dysregulation, or even new social interaction. These sensory overload triggers can lead to a variety of symptoms for someone with an autism spectrum disorder.

They act out in response to sensory signals and physical or emotional stress. Outbursts are their way of expressing feelings of agitation, frustration, sensitivity, fear, anxiety, or whatever they perceive as a sensory assault. As a parent, it can be hard to know what to do with a child that has sensory processing issues.

Unexpected meltdowns and fits of rage make it hard for children to make friends, succeed at school or team activities, or even leave the house. However, once you learn to recognize your child’s sensory triggers, you can help them learn to regulate their responses better. Occupational, speech, and Applied Behavioral Analysis therapies can help autistic children get better at managing sensory overload or overwhelming sensory issues and reduce meltdowns.

How to Manage Sensory Sensitivity in Children

Understanding sensory challenges and triggers to the sensory system is the first step in helping an autistic child reduce outbursts and feel comfortable in their environment. Whether an autistic person has auditory sensitivity, visual processing issues, or both, it is important to understand how to manage sensory overload. It also can help a person with autism learn to handle and respond to sensory challenges and social situations in a more positive way.

Curious about how to help with sensory overload? Teaching your child how to manage his or her own feelings and reactions in a heightened sensory experience is one of the best ways to prevent sensory overload before it starts:

  • Look for signs of distress before your child has a “meltdown” or becomes very upset. Do you notice regular sensory triggers? Encourage your child to communicate what is causing feelings of frustration, anger or agitation. If it’s easy to do so, address those concerns. Close a door, turn off lights and background noise, put a crying baby to sleep, etc.
  • Teach age-appropriate meditation and self-calming techniques. Deep breathing, yoga, and mindfulness help people of all ages manage stress, sensory overload, and anxiety disorders by calming the sympathetic nervous system, lowering blood pressure, and reducing reactiveness to stimuli.
  • Suggest simple methods for staying calm. Some tips include counting to ten, walking away, listening to music, or watching a calming video or reading a book.
  • Develop an exit strategy in the event of sensory overload. Talk to your child about ways he or she can stay calm or change environments if they start to feel overwhelmed. Would it help to take a nap, go outside and play, retreat to a quiet room or leave the party?
  • Give your child sensory toys, such as squeezy balls or buzzers, or make sure they always have their favorite blanket or stuffed animal. This can help create a sense of calm and security.
  • Make time for physical exercise. Children with autism often spend several afternoons in rehabilitation physical therapy. Exercise helps burn off pent up energy, relieve stress, and regulate sleep. Take it outdoors for a dose of nature therapy.
  • Buy an outdoor playset, swing or trampoline. Not only will it get your child outside and moving, but it provides the sensory input they need to self-regulate.
  • Have them wear a weighted vest or wrap up in a blanket. These heavy items can provide a feeling of security.
  • Add a pet to your family. Something as simple as petting a dog or cat can provide positive sensory input and have a calming effect on children with autism. Caring for a pet also teaches them responsibility and routine, and gives them a loyal companion to walk and play with. Service or emotional support dogs are trained to help autistic children manage emotions.

While it’s good to have a bag of tricks to use at home and in social situations, parenting a sensory sensitive child with autism takes patience and healthy coping strategies. It can be hard to stay calm and remember that an autistic person isn’t throwing a fit just to be difficult or cause a scene in public. They are hypersensitive and need support and age-appropriate tools to deal with sensory processing or autism during upsetting situations.

We Are Here to Help

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, don’t go it alone. Ivy Rehab’s Occupational Therapy and Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy offers specialized and individualized treatment for sensory sensitive children with autism and other developmental disabilities. Ivy’s caring and knowledgeable therapists provide emotional and practical support to both you and your child. By helping your child learn a variety of calming behaviors, you can make life more joyful and less stressful for yourself, your child and the entire family.


Article by: Holly Lookabaugh-Deur, PT, DSc, GCS, CEEAA

Ivy Rehab 

Holly is a practicing physical therapist, partner and Director of Clinical Services at Ivy Rehab Network with more than 40 years of experience in sports management with young athletes, and is board certified as a geriatric clinical specialist and certified exercise expert for aging adults. Deuer is certified as an aquatic and oncology rehabilitation specialist and serves as adjunct faculty at Central Michigan University and Grand Valley State University.

We’re Here for You

The medical information contained herein is provided as an information resource only, and does not substitute professional medical advice or consultation with healthcare professionals. This information is not intended to be patient education, does not create any patient-provider relationship, and should not be used as a substitute for professional diagnosis, treatment or medical advice. Please consult with your healthcare provider before making any healthcare decisions or for guidance about a specific medical condition. If you think you have a medical emergency, call your doctor or 911 immediately. IvyRehab Network, Inc. disclaims any and all responsibility, and shall have no liability, for any damages, loss, injury or liability whatsoever suffered as a result of your reliance on the information contained herein.

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