What’s inside this article: An in depth look at sensory overload. Including what sensory overload means, what it looks like and feels like, causes , prevention, and how to provide relief to kids experiencing overstimulation.
Is there a child in your life who seems to become anxious, panicked, or overwhelmed very easily? Do they seem especially sensitive to sounds, smells, and textures?
If you said “yes” to those questions,this heightened sensitivity might be due to sensory overload, a condition where the brain becomes overwhelmed by sensory input.
In this article, we’ll explore this topic in detail, explaining its meaning, symptoms, and strategies for supporting someone experiencing it.
What Is Sensory Overload?
Sensory overload happens when the brain is bombarded with more sensory information (from sight, smell, taste, touch, and sound) than it can handle.
This excess information causes feelings of anxiety, overwhelm, and even meltdowns.
While everyone experiences sensory overload occasionally, certain people, especially those who are neurodivergent, are more easily triggered and experience overstimulation more frequently.
It may even interfere with their quality of life and make it hard (or sometimes impossible) for them to participate in certain activities.
Causes of Sensory Overload
We all process sensory stimuli differently; this is called the sensory spectrum.
The exact cause of sensory overload is still under investigation. However, research indicates that some people are biologically predisposed.
White matter comprises nerve fibers and transfers information within the brain, so abnormalities affect how the brain processes information from our senses.
External factors can also increase our sensitivity to sensory stimuli — if we haven’t slept, have a headache, or aren’t feeling well, we are more easily bothered by noises, people, temperature, etc.
In addition to biological factors, past experiences, such as trauma, can influence sensitivity.
The Sensory Spectrum
The term “sensory spectrum” describes the array of sensory differences that exist from person to person. How we experience and interpret various stimuli is an individualized experience.
Additionally, we all have sensory preferences. These are things we enjoy and avoid. This is called a sensory bias. It’s the reason why people have different preferences for foods, music, activities, etc.
Sensory bias is normal and only poses a problem when it severely restricts or limits productivity or chronically interferes with enjoyment in life.
If you look at the diagram above, representing the sensory spectrum, you can see there is a “normal” or typical range. Most people fall somewhere within this range when describing how they experience sensory input.
However, some people are hypersensitive to stimuli, making them more likely to experience sensory overload. In contrast, some people are hyposensitive. These individuals may miss important cues from their bodies, like not realizing they are hungry until they are starving.
Conditions Related to Sensory Overload
Anyone can feel sensory overload. However, people with the following conditions may be more sensitive to stimuli and more likely to experience sensory overload symptoms:
- Sensory Processing Disorder
- PTSD (or children who had adverse childhood experiences – ACE’s)
- Fetal Alcohol Syndrome
- Down Syndrome
- Other developmental disorders
Experiencing Sensory Overload
Sensory overload is a challenging and overwhelming experience, with a wide range of physical and emotional responses.
It is essential for caregivers and educators to have an understanding of sensory processing differences and be able to recognize the signs of sensory overload in children. This knowledge can help to significantly reduce meltdowns and help you build an environment where your children flourish.
What Does Sensory Overload Feel Like?
Sensory overload can cause a variety of physical and emotional symptoms. It can also vary from person to person.
Some commonly reported symptoms of sensory overload include:
- Extreme irritability or agitation
- Intense overwhelm
- An urge to cover your ears, eyes, or run away from a situation or place
- Feelings of anxiety or fear
- Wanting everything around you to just “pause”
- An inability to ignore sensory inputs (loud sounds, strong smells, etc.)
- Unable to focus
- Overheating or dizziness
These feelings can range from mild to severe and worsen the longer the person is exposed the overwhelming stimuli.
What Does Sensory Overload Look Like?
If a parent or teacher doesn’t know what to look for, it might be hard for them to tell when a child is experiencing sensory overload.
Sometimes, it seems like kids are intentionally acting out, avoiding school work, or being defiant. With sensory overload or a sensory meltdown, this is not the case.
If your child is experiencing sensory overload, you may notice some of the following behaviors:
- Restlessness or difficulty sitting still
- Trying to leave certain locations or situations (for example, the classroom during group activities)
- Covering their face or closing their eyes
- Covering their ears
- Crying unexpectedly
- Outbursts or sudden intense frustration
- Aggression or agitation
- Not communicating what’s wrong
- Not following instructions
Children often can’t communicate directly that they are feeling overwhelmed or experiencing sensory overload, so it’s important to notice their behavior and try to reflect on what’s happening on the inside.
There’s always a reason for misbehavior, even when we can’t see it.
Managing and Preventing Sensory Overload
Recognizing and responding to sensory overload in children is crucial. You can use various strategies to provide kids with immediate relief during an episode of sensory overload.
There are always ways to prevent or reduce the occurrence of overstimulation.
Relieving Sensory Overload
When a child is experiencing sensory overload, you can help relieve their overstimulation by finding a way to dim or remove the sensory input that’s overwhelming them.
- Noise-reducing headphones
- Dimming the lights
- Taking a break in a quiet, non-stimulating environment
- Playing quiet nature sounds
- Offering a cold drink or snack, addressing unmet needs that are increasing sensitivity to stimuli
- Temporarily reducing expectations
- Simplifying a task
It’s also important to make children feel supported an validate their feelings when they are overstimulated. Emotion coaching is a great communication tool for this.
Scolding a child for their behavior or dismissing their experience by telling them to “get over it” is not helpful and may lead to more challenging behavior.
Develop an exit strategy:
If possible, work collaboratively with your child on an exit strategy they can use to remove themselves from overwhelming situations ahead of time.
For example, if you’re having guests over at your house, make it clear ahead of time that they can go to their room and take a break from all the guests who are talking loudly around them without asking permission or excusing themselves from the room first.
Self-regulation strategies help calm down our nervous system, and help kids get back to their base level after being overstimulated.
Knowing how to help stop sensory overload is important. But being able to prevent it from happening in the first place is even better.
Some of the most effective strategies for preventing sensory overload include:
- Identify your child’s triggers and plan ahead to avoid them or reduce their intensity
- Have a safe, calming space your child can use when overwhelmed.
- Have a sensory room where they can explore sensory input safely or using calming sensory tools
- Use tools to minimize sensory input, such as noise-reducing headphones, or fluorescent light covers.
You can read more detailed and specific prevention tips here.
Consider consulting with an occupational therapist if you’re observing recurring signs of overstimulation in your child.
An occupational therapist can offer invaluable expertise for children frequently dealing with sensory overload. They can evaluate a child’s unique sensory requirements and design a tailored sensory diet, a specialized set of activities to accommodate their sensory needs and alleviate sensory processing challenges.
The more you know about sensory overload, the easier it is to support your child and help them to feel safe.
The following articles may help you prevent, or stop, sensory meltdowns or overload.