Can you remember the last time you felt you were in real danger? Your heart was pounding, your knees were weak and your mind raced. Now imagine experiencing that fight-or-flight response from just walking through a grocery store or visiting a coffee shop.
Advocates for autism awareness have been finding new ways to illustrate that experience. These creators are using first person videos and games to paint a picture of what it's like for people living with autism.
What is Sensory Overload?
Sensory overload occurs when a person's senses become overstimulated. It can be triggered by environmental factors like noise, lights, or tactile sensations. Everyone is susceptible to sensory overload — it's just that people with autism have a heightened sensitivity to environmental stimuli, so their tolerance for sensory stimulation can be quite low. Symptoms of sensory overload include irritability, difficulty focusing, muscle tension, restlessness and angry outbursts.
People who suffer from sensory overload often feel out of control and vulnerable — especially children. As a parent or caregiver, providing a sense of security is itself a preventative measure. If a parent is able to respond in a consistent and level-headed way, a child will feel safe and be better prepared to face challenging circumstances.
Recognize the Warning Signs
Overload can have many triggers and individuals' responses can be just as varied. A person may show signs of panic and aggression, or he may become inert and shut down. What appears to be willful misbehavior may actually be signs of sensory overload. Inability to speak and repetitive movements like rocking or hand-flapping are also common signs that a person's senses are becoming overwhelmed.
If you're a parent, you probably already know your child’s triggers. If your child is especially sensitive to noise, set up a special place at home where your child can retreat to take break when needed. Create an orderly environment by reducing clutter. If your child is sensitive to touch, review their wardrobe and try to eliminate the fabrics that cause discomfort. Consider adding a hoody sweater or jacket to your go kit and encourage your child to where it when they're feeling overwhelmed. The jacket can help muffle sound and reduce peripheral visual stimuli.
Give your child time before and after school to unwind after school or after visiting sensory-intensive environments. This may mean silent time or a favorite activity like a game or just rocking quietly. Your child will be more responsive and engaged if he's given time to transition between environments. You can also use a timer so that they know when activities will end. If the activity is stressful for the child, the timer sets an expectation of relief. If it's an enjoyable activity, the child is better able to prepare himself for the transition.
Sights, Sounds and Speech
If your child shuts down from sensory overload, try lowering lights and replace distressing sounds with calming, soft music — or silence. Be mindful of verbal communication. It may be best to talk less, since speech can be just more sensory input and make things worse for the child. If you need to ask questions, give your child time to process and respond to your suggestions or questions. Keep in mind that sensory overload slows down a person's ability to comprehend information.
Touch and Personal Space
People with ASD often have a heightened skin sensitivity, so a touch that's meant to be soothing may only exacerbate sensory overload. It’s also good to be aware of your posture and body language. Try not to crowd or loom over a child who's experiencing sensory overload. Instead, bring yourself down to their level by crouching or sitting near the child. If you’re away from home, you may introduce certain items from your go-kit, like a jacket or vest.
If your child becomes aggressive, try not to overreact or take it personally. Keep in mind that your child feels vulnerable and out of control, and remember that what they need most is reassurance that you're in control of yourself and the situation. Try to listen to your child’s needs. If she begins rocking or staring oddly into space, this may be a healthy coping mechanism.
Occupational therapy is an important part of our preschool's holistic approach to mental health and education, and it's a particularly helpful way to address sensory overload. Techniques like deep pressure and proprioceptive input calm the nervous system; an occupational therapist can introduce sensory integration tools like weighted vests, belts and sensory brushes specially designed for children with ASD.