Sensory Overload in Children With Autism

September 7, 2022

Most people have experienced sensory overload at some point in their life. You may have noticed stress caused by music that is too loud or lights that are too bright. Everyone copes with this stress in different ways. This may look different in children who have not developed coping skills yet. 

People with autism may process sensory information in a different way than people with neurotypical brains. As many as 90 percent of children with autism experience an unusual response to sensory information. 

Overall, 5 to 16 percent of all school-aged children have trouble processing sensory information. Researchers have found evidence that the brain's structure differs in children who have difficulty processing sensory information.

Although many children with autism experience sensory overload, not all children who experience sensory overload have autism. Sensory overload is also associated with other conditions such as anxiety and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).  

People with autism have a harder time filtering out what is happening around them. Research suggests that a combination of genetics and environmental factors influence sensory sensitivity.

What is sensory overload?

Sensory overload is a sensory processing disorder (SPD). SPD can affect one of the senses or multiple senses and influences how the brain processes sensory information. People with SPD may be over-responsive, under-responsive, or a combination of the two. 

Sensory overload happens when too much information floods the senses. Without appropriate coping skills, children with autism may exhibit unusual behavior due to sensory overload. 

In addition to the five senses of sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste, two additional senses might be involved in sensory overload—proprioception and vestibular. Proprioception is your body’s sense of awareness. The vestibular system involves your sense of balance and movement. When children with autism are overstimulated, it may feel like anxiety, irritation, or physical pain.

What does sensory overload look like?

Sensory overload is especially hard to recognize in children with autism who may not be able to verbalize what is bothering them. Caretakers need to be able to recognize the signs and symptoms of sensory overload to prevent overstimulation and reduce stress. 

Children with SPD often exhibit behaviors that are misinterpreted, which can label them as “picky” or “oversensitive.” 

Signs of sensory overload will be different for every child.

Trouble focusing

It is no surprise that children who are experiencing overstimulation may have trouble focusing. When the brain has trouble processing sensory input, it is difficult to focus on learning or completing other tasks. 

Mood swings

Caretakers may notice that children who are calm and happy in a quiet, controlled environment become angry or irritable when they are exposed to a different environment with too many stimuli. A child with light and sound sensitivity might feel overwhelmed in a busy shopping mall. The stress caused by the sensory overload might be expressed as anger or even tantrums. 

Self-stimulatory behaviors

Engaging in self-stimulatory behaviors, sometimes referred to as “stimming,” is a common way many children with autism regulate their emotions. Stimming can help block out sensory stimuli causing them to feel overwhelmed.

Stimming may look like restlessness or fidgeting. Stims may be related to the sense that is being overwhelmed, such as covering eyes with a sensitivity to light. They may also be unrelated and meant to soothe, such as hand flapping or rocking. 

Fear or anxiety  

Children with SPD may become fearful of environments they associate with sensory overload. For example, a child who experienced overstimulation at a shopping mall may have extreme anxiety about returning to the same place.

What are strategies to manage sensory overload?

To manage sensory overload, children with autism can learn coping skills and avoid environments that cause it. 

Coping with sensory overload can include learning how to deal with the feelings it causes, such as anxiety, fear, or anger. Breathing exercises and anger management strategies may be included in the therapy of children with SPD. 

Sensory integration therapy

Children with SPD who experience sensory overload are often referred to occupational therapy for sensory integration therapy. Sensory integration therapy can help children with autism learn how to interpret and process sensory information. An occupational therapist will develop a program suited for the needs of the individual child so that they can experience different sensory stimuli in a safe and controlled environment. 

Strategies to avoid environmental triggers

Environmental triggers will differ for each child, but once they are identified, it can be easier to minimize or avoid them. It may be possible to get classroom accommodations for students with autism.  

Some common ways to avoid sensory overload include:

  • Wear headphones or earplugs
  • Sit away from bright lights or windows
  • Wear sunglasses if lights cannot be turned down
  • Use fidgets or stress balls
  • Take sensory or exercise breaks 
  • Use fragrance-free soaps and laundry detergents 
  • Eat a bland diet

Conclusion

Sensory overload and sensory processing disorder are common in children with autism. Parents and caretakers should be aware of the signs of sensory overload to help manage the symptoms. 

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