Sensory Overload – Tips for Helping Sensory Sensitive Kids
This content was updated for accuracy and relevance on 02/01/22
Anyone can struggle with sensory overload, including adults, but it’s more common among sensory sensitive children with autism, ADHD, or other behavioral issues.
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. They 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 as 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 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 extreme odors, loud noise, fluorescent lights, learning to share and play, unfamiliar surroundings, and any change in daily routine 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 as well as 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 a sensory overload issue. 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 better regulate their responses. Occupational, speech, and Applied Behavioral Analysis therapies can help autistic children better manage overwhelming sensory issues and reduce meltdowns.
How to Manage Sensory Overload 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. It also can help a person with autism learn to handle and respond to sensory sensitive challenges and social situations in a more positive way.
Teaching your child how to manage his or her own feelings and reactions in a sensory overload experience is one of the best ways to prevent a meltdown due to sensory difficulties 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 and sensory overload anxiety 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 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 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 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 overload and 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
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.