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What is Sensory Overload?

Sensory overload

 

 

 

 

 

What is Sensory Overload?

Sensory overload is when our body’s senses (taste, smell, sight, hearing, touch) experience over stimulation from our environment.  For an individual with sensory overload their nervous system is so overwhelmed that it can not process all the information that it is receiving.

What are the causes of sensory overload?

The causes of sensory overload can be numerous. For instance:

  • Hearing: Loud noise or sound from multiple sources, such as several people talking at once or a loud fire alarm.
  • Sight: Bright lights, strobing lights, or environments with lots of movement such as crowds or frequent scene changes on television.
  • Smell and taste: Strong aromas or spicy foods.
  • Touch: Tactile sensations such as being touched by another person or the feel of cloth on skin.

What are the symptoms of sensory overload?

  • Irritability
  • “Shuts down”, or refuses to participate in activities and/or interact with others
  • Avoids touching or being touched
  • Gets overexcited
  • Covers eyes around bright lights
  • Makes poor eye contact
  • Covers ears to close out sounds or voices
  • Complains about noises that do not affect others
  • Having difficulty focusing on an activity
  • Constantly changing activities, never completing a task
  • Irritation caused by shoes, socks, tags, or different textures
  • Over-sensitivity to touch, movement, sights, and/or sounds
  • Has trouble with social interactions
  • Extremely high or extremely low activity levels
  • Muscle tension
  • Fidgeting and restlessness
  • Angry outbursts
  • Sleeplessness/fatigue
  • Difficulty concentrating

How can you help an individual with sensory overload?

Recognize the onset of overload. Overload can show up in different ways for different people. It may look like a panic attack, getting “hyper,” shutting down, or having a meltdown (which resembles a tantrum, but is not thrown on purpose).

  • During a relaxed time, ask yourself about the signs of sensory overload. What triggers it? What behavior do you (or your loved one) use when you start feeling overwhelmed? If you are a parent or caretaker, you can also ask a child who experiences sensory overload about triggers when he is relaxed.
  • Many autistic people use different “stims,” or repetitive motor mannerisms, when overloaded than at other times (such as rocking when happy and hand-flapping when overloaded). Think about if you have a stim that you only use for self-calming or coping with overload.
  • If you lose normal functioning abilities, such as speaking, this is often a sign of severe overload. Caretakers and parents may especially notice this with young children who are overloaded.

 

Reduce visual stimulation. A person experiencing visual overload may need to wear sunglasses indoors, refuse eye contact, turn away from people who are speaking, cover one’s eyes, and bump into people or things.[2] To help with visual stimulation, reduce the items that hang from the ceiling or walls. Keep small items put away in bins or boxes, and organize and label the bins.[3]

  • If lighting is overwhelming, use a lamp instead of fluorescent lighting. You can also use darker bulbs instead of bright bulbs. Use blackout curtains to minimize light.[4]
  • If indoor lights are overwhelming, using sunshades can be helpful.

Lower the noise level. Overstimulation of sound may include not being able to shut off background noises (such as someone having a conversation far away), which can influence concentration. Some noises can be perceived as excruciatingly loud and distracting. To help with noise overstimulation, shut any open doors or windows that may be allowing sound inside. Lower or turn off any music that may be distracting, or go somewhere more quiet.[6] Minimize verbal directions and/or conversations.

  • Having ear plugs, headphones, and white noise may come in handy when noises seem too overwhelming.[7]
  • If you are trying to communicate with someone experiencing audio sensory overload, ask yes or no questions instead of open-ended questions. These are easier to respond to, and can be answered with thumbs up/thumbs down.

Lessen tactile input. Tactile overload, which refers to the sensation of touch, can include being unable to handle to be touched or hugged. Many people with sensory processing issues are hypersensitive to touch, and being touched or thinking they are about to be touched can worsen the overload. Tactile sensitivity can include a sensitivity to clothing (preferring soft fabrics) or to touching certain textures or temperatures. Recognize what textures are pleasing and which ones are not. Make sure that any new clothing is sensory-friendly.[8]

  • If you are a caretaker or friend, listen when someone says touch hurts and/or pulls away. Acknowledge the pain and don’t continue touching the person.
  • When interacting with someone with tactile sensitivity, always alert him when you are about to touch him, and come from the front, never from behind.[9]
  • Refer to an occupational therapist for more sensory integration ideas.

Regulate smells. Some fragrances or stenches may be overwhelming, and unlike sight, you cannot shut your nose to disengage the sense. If smells are overwhelming, consider using unscented shampoos, detergents, and cleaning products.[10]

  • Remove as many unpleasant scents as possible from the environment. You could buy unscented products, or you may enjoy getting crafty and making your own unscented toothpaste, soaps, and detergent.

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