Sensory Overload – Tips for Helping Sensory Sensitive Kids
Anyone can struggle with sensory overload, including adults, but it’s more common among sensory sensitive children with autism, ADHD or other behavioral issues. Autistic children can have a tough time managing their emotions due to abnormal sensory processing and hypersensitivity to environmental stimuli. They often struggle in new environments 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.
Sensory Sensitive Children and Autism
Sensory overload can happen to children who are just extra sensitive or on the spectrum. Even high-functioning and well-adjusted children are prone to the occasional meltdown. Their brains are still developing and learning how to respond to different stimulation. For autistic children, extreme odors, loud sounds, fluorescent lights, learning to share and play, unfamiliar surroundings, and any change in daily routine can trigger tantrums and outbursts. They act out in response to physical or emotional stress. Outbursts are their way of expressing feelings of agitation, frustration, fear, anxiety or whatever they perceive as a sensory assault. As a parent, it can be hard to know what to do. 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 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.
Tips for Staying Calm, Reducing Triggers
Understanding sensory challenges and triggers are 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 is one of the best ways to prevent a meltdown before it starts:
- Look for signs of distress before your child has a “meltdown” or becomes very upset. Do you notice regular 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, 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 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 autistic children aren’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.