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Sensory Overload in ASD: What is Sensory Overload and What Parents Can Do to Help

If you are a parent of a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), you have likey encountered a situation of sensory overload. At My World ABA, we understand the potential challenges in navigating sensory overload and we are here to help you navigate some key facts about it and what distinguishes it from other challenging behaviors.

Facing sensory overload

As professionals, we are not strangers to periodic sensory overload. However, as a parent of a child diagnosed with autism, you may find yourself at a crossroads when faced head-on with your and your child’s first experience of sensory overload. 

If this is the case, you don’t have to remain in the same place. We are here to help you navigate the road and help you and your child remain calm and safe the next time you experience a situation resulting in sensory overload.

What is sensory overload? 

Everyone has different experiences when it comes to the way they receive information. Individuals diagnosed with autism (and some other conditions such as ADHD, Sensory Processing Disorder, PTSD, etc.) may experience a heightened effect on certain types of sounds, smells, etc. In some cases, more than one of a person’s senses can feel ‘overloaded’ at one time (Verywell Mind, 2022). 

In simple terms, sensory overload is the sudden exposure to too much information at once. When too much information is received, a part of the brain called the amygdala (responsible for directing information to the correct place) becomes jammed, making it more difficult “prioritize and organize information” (GriffinOT, 2020). 

Symptoms of sensory overload

When an individual begins to experience sensory overload, you may notice several symptoms including:

  • Covering ears
  • Crying and screaming
  • Aggression
  • Closing eyes and refusing to open them
  • Completely shutting down, etc

While the above-noted symptoms are child-specific, sensory overload isn’t a child-specific occurrence. Anyone can experience sensory overload, and while some symptoms may overlap, other symptoms commonly shared include:

  • Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Lack of focus
  • Panic attacks, among others (Verywell Mind, 2022).

These reactions are not a tantrum

One specific thing to remember is that an individual experiencing sensory overload is not the same as tantrum behavior (although you may see some of the same symptoms). When faced with deciphering whether you are dealing with a tantrum or sensory overload behavior, it is important to understand what was happening before the behavior.

Tantrums are goal-oriented

Tantrums typically occur as the result of gaining access to something to satisfy a need or a want. It is goal-oriented! Behaviors occurring due to sensory overload, however, don’t occur with a specific goal in mind. They are simply an attempt to cope with the current situation to the best of the individual’s ability. 

When experiencing sensory overload, a child is not able to control their emotions, reactions, or behaviors. These specific experiences may happen “with or without a specific trigger” and may not be blatantly obvious to you or outside observers (Beck, 2019).

What can I do to help my child experiencing sensory overload?

Understanding why your child is overwhelmed can be a daunting and overwhelming experience for the parent as well, often leaving the parent at a loss of what to do in the moment. However, you are your child’s biggest advocate, and, in a time when they don’t know what to do; they will turn to you to help them through life’s toughest moments (even when your child is inconsolable in the present moment). In this section, we are going to provide some strategies for managing the toughest meltdowns.

Remain Calm

First and foremost, remain calm and neutral. We understand that this can be hard, especially in public when there may be a bunch of eyes on you; but you and your child are the only ones that matter in that moment. 

Learn Your Child’s Triggers

Begin to learn and understand your child’s triggers. Learning and understanding ‘triggers’ may be difficult at first because stimuli that cause your child to experience sensory overload may not be as noticeable to you. However, beginning to pay attention to what is happening before the behavior can help you to strategically prepare for situations in which sensory overload may occur (Watson, 2021).

Be Proactive

If you know you are going to be going somewhere where sensory overload may occur, use strategies to remain proactive and limit the amount of sensory input being received where possible. Some strategies for being proactive include:

  • Being familiar with the setting/event you and your child are attending
  • Calling ahead to the venue, where possible, to ask about accommodations
  • When going shopping, make a list and stay on task, etc (Watson, 2021).

Be Prepared

Inevitably there will be times when a sensory meltdown will occur, no matter how proactive you are. In any event, however, being prepared is key. When you know your child’s triggers, you can be better prepared to have what you need to help mitigate, as much as possible, any excess stimuli. Being prepared can be as simple as 1) carrying a pair of noise-canceling headphones if your child is sensitive/triggered to sounds and/or 2) carrying a few comfort items just in case. You will learn to know what being prepared means for you and your child.

Make Sure Your Child Knows Exactly What to Expect

Finally, prepare your child for any changes in routine or possibly unexpected events. Remember earlier when we talked about understanding what happens before the behavior to differentiate between tantrums and sensory meltdowns? Well, you can possibly help lessen the likelihood of a meltdown by helping prepare your child for the upcoming event. This can be done by explaining what you are going to be doing, what sounds they may hear, etc. Also, because sensory meltdowns occur as a method of coping when the individual does not have another means of controlling their emotions, reactions, or behaviors, it is important to remind the person what they can do when feeling overwhelmed.

My World ABA in Springfield, MO

My World ABA is a leading provider of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) services in Springfield, MO. Our team consists of Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs) and Registered Behavior Technicians (RBTs) who work with your child using ABA therapy techniques to help improve communication, social skills, adaptive living skills, etc. To learn more about our services, and schedule a tour or consultation, please visit our website or call (417) 818-5784 today. 

Heather Syrinek

M.S., BCBA

References

Beck, C. (2019, July 28). Sensory Meltdown or Tantrum: Which one is it? The OT Toolbox.

G. (2022, February 21). What is sensory overload and how can I support individual’s sensory needs. GriffinOT. 

Watson, K. (2021, November 19). What Is Sensory Overload? Healthline. 
What Is Sensory Overload? (2021, March 15). Verywell Mind.