Back to basics: what is sensory overload in autism?

Imagine this.

You’re in a brightly lit room (and you hate strong lights). The music is so loud it’s piercing. You’ve been served lunch and it’s all cold (and your teeth are sensitive to cold foods). There’s a smell that’s so strong it’s giving you a headache.

And you can’t get out.

When you have sensory overload, one or more of your body’s senses is just so overstimulated that you feel as though you can’t handle it.

While sensory overload is experienced by people with OCD or PTSD, it’s very common in autism. When people on the autism disorder spectrum are overloaded, it can be debilitating. This is because their sensory systems are typically very delicate and sensitive, and they can’t necessarily easily filter out the kind of stimuli neurotypical people can (like dogs barking, the feel of wool on skin, and so on).

What happens when a person with autism is experiencing sensory overload? The following can happen, and it can be mild to severe:

Muscle tension
Increased heart rate

In some cases, kids will exhibit sensory-seeking behaviors or sensory-avoidance behaviors. Sometimes, they engage in distraction behaviors. All of this is an attempt to try to manage the sensory overload the ways they know how.

The most accepted cause of sensory overload is that kids with autism generally have an imbalance in attention and an inability to move their focus between the environment around them and smaller, more minute details. Go back to the room we described earlier: a child with autism could be in a dim room, with soft music, and no discernible scent. But the lunch served is cold, and they can’t handle the feel of cold, mushy foods. Because they can’t shift their focus from the cold food to the larger environment around them, they’re concentrated on the cold food, and it becomes overwhelming and upsetting. That’s just one example – it’s different between all kids.

When it comes to managing sensory overload, there are a few things we can do as parents or guardians of kids with autism.

Exercise. By engaging our kids with regular exercise, it helps them burn off any stress or tension that could really blow up when overloaded. Bonus: this is a good stim!

Talk. When you ask your child what they need to feel better, it makes them feel in control of their own feelings.

Watch. Make sure you’re attentive to those signs of distress, so you can anticipate a meltdown before it happens.

There’s a therapy you may inquire about too, called sensory integration therapy, or SIT. It exposes the child to different types of stimuli, but in a safe place, and is designed to help reduce their hypersensitivity to those things they’ve been overwhelmed by in the past.

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