Sensory Overload in Autism

Although each individual with autism is unique and the symptoms are different in each individual, sensory overload is a condition observed in every individual with autism without exception. Since sensory overload is a condition that greatly affects the quality of life of the individual, it should definitely be addressed and methods should be found to reduce its effects.

It is not unusual for individuals with autism to be much more sensitive to stimuli in their environment than neurotypical individuals. Of course, this situation is not unique to individuals with autism. It tends to be more severe in individuals with autism.

In autistic individuals, it is one of the most common problems to have extreme or low sensory overload. They are either very sensitive to the world around them or completely careless. Sensory overload and autism often go together, as individuals with autism regularly struggle to process sensory information.

In fact, the vast majority of individuals with autism spectrum disorder have sensory problems that lead to sensory overload. Hypersensitivity to loud sounds, touch, and light is a common sensory problem. Personalized education plans are designed to meet the unique needs of each individual with autism, and treatment is planned for comorbid autism and sensory problems. The implementation of these plans is followed by the primary caregivers. These plans typically include both behavioral and occupational therapies.

Neurotypical people can selectively filter out environmental stimuli. They can easily block the noise etc around them. But autistic individuals cannot do this in the way we do. This situation causes sensory overload in autistic individuals. This sensory overload can also cause stress. Stimming behaviors are also observed in stressed autistic individuals as a result of relieving the stress.

Symptoms of Sensory Overload

A sensory overload could be observed in different ways which are sensory hypersensitivity or sensory hyposensitivity. Sensory hypersensitivity happens when a person is over-responsive to environmental stimuli. Sensory hyposensitivity happens when a person is under-responsive to environmental stimuli which means they are completely reckless about what is going on around them. 

Sensory overload is one of the most common conditions in children with autism and children with ADHD. It is a condition that affects even those with high-functioning autism. With some autistic individuals, hypersensitivity could be very extreme. They can react to environmental stimuli which we do not even recognize. 

Sensory overload can cause some symptoms in autistic individuals. These symptoms could be anxiety, fear, physical pain, anger, overwhelming, sweating, heart rate issues, panic attacks, intense muscle movements, rapid breathing, running away from people, a desire to cover themselves, stimming, and self-harming behaviors. In these cases, stimming and self-harming behaviors can be observed together since stimming behaviors are like head-banging, self-hitting, or self-scratching. 

Stimming is one of the most common responses to sensory overload. It is a kind of self-stimulatory behavior. The main of these behaviors are self-soothing and distracting while concentrating on their bodies. These stimming behaviors can be observed as rocking back and forth, hand-flapping, spinning around themselves, or repeating words. 

How Does Sensory Overload Affect an Autistic Person?

Sometimes we see an autistic person having a tantrum and think that it is happening out of nowhere. However, it is actually happening as a result of sensory overload. It is a simple response of autistic individuals. These responses do not need to be the same always, they can be different in each situation. Or they can even react differently to the same stimuli but in different locations. They may be hypersensitive to one specific stimulus in one specific environment while they are hyposensitive to that stimulus in a different environment. 

Since autistic people feel and sense the world differently than us who are neurotypical people and behave differently than us, it is possible not to understand them immediately. It might not be possible for us to link those differences with sensory overload. It is inevitable for autistic people who find it difficult to process daily sensory information to experience this situation. It can even be said that sensory overload or information overload is an indispensable part of the daily routine of autistic individuals. And this sensory overload can cause stress, anxiety, and even physical pain.

Causes of Sensory Overload

Although the cause of sensory overload is not fully understood, it is experienced by people with different neurological and psychological disorders. At the top of these disorders are autism, ADHD, and PTSD.

Although individuals with autism are quite selective in their areas of interest, it is also a known fact that individuals with autism are hypersensitive and attentive to environmental stimuli that neurotypical individuals do not notice or are not interested in. According to studies, these rapid changes and imbalances in attention areas, inability to change focus quickly, etc. cause sensory overload in individuals with autism. 

There are different environmental stimuli that trigger sensory overload in autistic individuals. These stimuli can differ from person to person. These triggers mostly include the 5 main senses which are sound, sight, smell, taste, or textures. 

  • Sounds: Persistent and rhythmic sounds, loud noises, multiple sounds at once, washing machines, thunders, ticking or etc.
  • Sights: Flickering lamps, thunders, fluttering curtains, malls, etc.
  • Smells: Heavy smells, distinct smells, odors, fish, burnt things, etc.
  • Taste: Flavor of the food, the temperature of the food, etc. 
  • Textures: Slippery foods, slimy gel, fluffy toys, etc. 

The result of sensory overload can vary among individuals with autism and may include both instinctive and emotional responses. In hypersensitive individuals, it may present as a physical illness, including vomiting, yelling, crying, running away, or general avoidance of the environment. 

Other Types of Sensory Overload

We cannot limit sensory overload to only 5 main senses. Autistic individuals can be triggered by different stimuli as well that affect their balance, body awareness, and motor skills. They may overreact to vestibular, proprioception, and interoception stimulus. 

  • Vestibular: Refers to the structures in the inner ear. It is the structure that perceives every movement and change of the head. Thanks to this structure, we can perceive when our head is upright or tilted. In autistic individuals, this structure may be damaged and they may react because they cannot perceive.
  • Proprioception: Thanks to this structure in our body, we can perceive the position of other objects relative to our body. The receptors in the muscles make up this system. Muscle length, pressure, and tension provide this perception. However, due to this damaged structure autistic individuals, they are not able to perceive the position of objects and experience sensory overload issues. 
  • Interoception: At the most basic level, it is the system that allows us to recognize what is going on in our body. It is the system that allows us to understand when we are hungry, full, thirsty, etc., which means allows us to realize our biologically based needs. It can be stated that this neural network, which is damaged in autistic individuals, causes them to not perceive these biological needs as we do, and the biological needs that cannot be fulfilled cause sensory overload.

How To Manage Sensory Overload

Managing the sensory overload of autistic individuals has to be very important for primary caregivers and teachers. They need to be aware of the fact that how much sensory input should be provided for the well-being of autistic individuals. It shouldn’t be too much or too little sensory input. There are different methods to follow in order to fulfill this need such as home therapy, occupational therapy, and drug therapy. 

Home Therapy

It is important to understand when an autistic individual has sensory overload as a caregiver or a teacher. It is important to know the signs and symptoms and to act accordingly. Especially for home therapies, parents and caregivers have to know and understand the signs and follow some steps to make an autistic individual calm. 

You need to watch your child carefully in a stressful environment before they have a meltdown or tantrum. You need to encourage your child to talk about what causes stress, what they feel, and what causes anger and then you can remove the trigger from the environment. You can ask directly what needs to be changed or offer something else to make them comfortable such as taking a nap or changing the environment. There is some additional stuff to help them in order to give calmness, for example, a weighted blanket. Weighted objects give autistic individuals calm, comfort, and a sense of security. For home therapy, you need to plan regular exercise for an autistic child in order to burn their energy. Swimming is a good alternative to exercise. When the child gets old, you can teach some self-calming methods such as meditation, yoga, deep breathing, and more. 

Occupational Therapy

Occupational therapy is the most preferred therapy method for autistic individuals experiencing sensory overload. It greatly helps in acquiring daily life skills. There is a technique commonly used in occupational therapy. It is called sensory integration therapy. It is aimed to gradually reduce hypersensitivity. It is play-based as it is generally preferred for children with autism. In a play-based safe environment, the child with autism is exposed to different stimuli and the intensity of this stimulus is gradually reduced and the child is tried to get used to this situation. Different methods or tools can be used to reduce sensory overload by occupational therapists such as sensory adaptation, environmental modification, and sensory diets. 

  • Sensory adaptation: At their most basic, they are tools used to block audible environmental stimuli. These tools can be earplugs or noise machines that emit white noise. The tool that children with autism usually and mostly prefer is noise-canceling headphones. They become their best friends in any environment. 
  • Environmental modification: It usually involves making changes in the environment in which the individual with autism is located rather than directly offering a tool. Soundproofing, changing the room color, using unscented perfumes, or changing the texture of the wallpaper can be some of them. 
  • Sensory diets: They are tailor-made and individualized strategies. It is aimed to provide an accurate and sufficient level of stimulation. Weighted items, fidgeting toys, stress balls, or creating a quiet environment can be included in this simulation.

Sensory Integration Therapy (SIT) 

Sensory integration activities, which are the best support for the development of mental functions and even a therapeutic method, not only ensure the active participation of children with their fun but also make an incredible contribution to their development in many different areas, as is desired as parents. Below you can find many different activities that you can easily practice at home or on the street. Almost all of them consist of activities that children will willingly participate in, that include stimuli that they like or even need.

Among these activities, when choosing the ones that are suitable for your child, ensure that you have the chance to recognize the ones that support the nervous system best and eliminate the others. Among these games, you can choose the ones suitable for your child’s age and interests. The point that should be paid particular attention to while following these is that you should not add any activity that you observe that your child is uncomfortable to games just because it is recommended. Because this indicates that the child may be sensitive to any sensory stimulus, and this sensitivity may decrease over time or may require therapy.

In addition, all of these activities are prepared for physically healthy children. If you have a child with developmental difficulties, it is recommended that you first seek support from a specialist. Moreover, it is only up to your imagination to develop these stimuli and add them to different games.

  • Somersaults on soft surfaces with a small pilates ball
  • Swinging in the sheet
  • Jumping on the bed
  • Spinning around themselves or primary caregivers 
  • Playing games in this position while standing up like a cat with a softball under their stomach
  • Playing with vibrating and fidgeting toys
  • Massage with olive oil or baby oil by applying light pressure to the whole body of the child, at this point, it is necessary to pay attention to the fact that it is odorless
  • Touching different surfaces with hands and feet (Ex: Warm water, cold water, cotton, hard objects, grass, sand)
  • Walking around the house barefoot and recognizing the texture of the floor
  • Trying to get out of covers such as tulle or blanket was thrown on them
  • Reciprocal throwing
  • Throwing an object at the target
  • Jumping from a high floor (over the bed, etc.) to a soft floor (cushion, quilt, pillow, etc.)
  • Pushing and pulling objects
  • Pushing against the wall with their feet while lying on their back on the floor
  • Trying to sit or roll over while lying on your back on a Pilates ball
  • Encouraging them to lift and play with objects that may be considered heavy for them
  • Pillow fighting and letting them recognize both texture and weight
  • Being sandwiched between pillows and sheets
  • Getting used to playing with shaving foam, play dough, and finger paint with both hands and feet
  • Painting hard and soft surfaces (flat, jagged, etc.)
  • Trying to get the balloon across the room with a not-so-long stick
  • Sitting in a box filled with rice and bulgur and playing games in it to recognize relatively sharp objects
  • Crawling, turning, and lying on a shaggy floor (carpet, plush, etc.)
  • Picking grass or burying objects in the ground
  • Climbing
  • Touching and loving animals
  • Imitating the way animals walk (creeping without hands like a snake, walking backward like a crab, etc.)
  • Crawling, turning, crawling, lying on soil, grass, or stony ground without socks
  • Jumping while sitting on a softball with feet touching the ground
  • Playing the latch fastening game by asking them to put on and take off both your clothes and theirs
  • Ask them to imitate the different movements you make
  • Play rhythmic children’s songs during activities
  • Dancing in rhythm to music on your lap or holding your hands
  • Swing on swings
  • Trying to stand or walk on unstable surfaces
  • Hitting a suspended ball with hands and feet

Drug Therapy (Prescriptions)

The least preferred method in the treatment of sensory overload is drug therapy. Especially in children with autism, if a severe self-harming behavior is not observed, it is tried not to be preferred. In some cases, the antipsychotic drugs used are more at a level to prevent aggression and self-harming behavior. In addition, if there are ADHD symptoms, which are the biggest companion of autism, medication can be prescribed to reduce the effects of ADHD. 

OEDOC Silicone Ear Plugs for Noise Reduction – Reusable Soft Comfortable Earplugs

They are excellent earplugs in order to block all the noise in the environment which is exactly what an individual with autism needs in a noisy environment. As we all know, too much noise means too much sensory overload for autistic people. They need these perfectly designed earplugs in those times to keep them calm. You will be truly amazed by how they work. You can easily keep your child calm and reduce their anxiety level. They are also very comfortable to wear and easy to carry. There are different color options available to choose from which are black, green, light blue, olive green, pink, purple, and red. Overall, it is a great investment. Silicone Ear Plugs for Noise Reduction – Reusable Soft Comfortable Earplugs for Sleeping, Noise Sensitivity & Flights -16 Ear Tips in XS/S/M/L, with 2 Travel Boxes – 33dB Noise Cancelling(Pink): Health & Household

Alpine Pluggies Kids Ear Plugs for Small Ear Canals – Noise Cancelling Earplugs for Kids Age 5-12

They are great additional tools for children who have sensitive hearing, for example, children with autism or other sensory issues. They are specifically designed for small ears. They are designed to protect children’s hearing canals but can be used for children who can be overloaded by the noise, especially during their sleep. They are very small but provide great comfort. They are very trustable tools because they are tested many times in different circumstances. They are made of high-quality and safe materials to be used by children in comfort. These earplugs are highly recommended by parents. Alpine Pluggies Kids Ear Plugs for Small Ear Canals – Noise Cancelling Earplugs for Kids Age 5-12 – Multi-Purpose Kids Ear Protection – 25dB – Reusable Hypoallergenic Filter Earplugs: Health & Household 

Special Supplies Ladybug Sensory Vibrating Pillow, Pressure Activated for Kids and Adults

The sensory vibration inside of the pillow gives a sense of security and comfort to individuals who need sensory stimulation at every age. Especially for individuals with autism, it is a great alternative during anxious times since it gives a hugging effect to them. It is covered with soft velvet fabric that creates even more comfortable stimulation to them. It is a very cute ladybird pillow that can be carried everywhere. It will be your child’s or your best friend during sleep. Special Supplies Ladybug Sensory Vibrating Pillow, Pressure Activated for Kids and Adults, Plush Minky Soft with Textured Therapy Stimulation Bumps: Health & Household 

Panny & Mody Lion Sensory Necklaces (3 Pack)

These necklaces are very good for children who love chewing. It is a behavior pattern that mostly belongs to children with ADHD or autism. Even though it is very useful for them, it won’t be suitable for heavy chewers. Aggressive chewing may destroy them or shorten their useful life. Even though they are not destroyed in a long term, it needs to be replaced since it is a chewing toy. They help to reduce finger sucking and biting, make them calm and keep them busy. Especially, if they are sensory overloaded, they are great tools. Panny & Mody Lion Sensory Necklaces(3 Pack) : Health & Household 

YAFANG Sensory Body Sock – Stretchy Sensory Sox for 3-5 Years Old Kids with SPD, Autism, ADHD – Deep Pressure Sensory Sack for Self-Calming and Relaxing

It is a perfect supply for children who need sensory stimulation. Children with autism need this kind of stimulation to keep them calm and comfortable. It blocks all the other sensory inputs that can lead to distraction, so help to keep them focused and relaxed. It is very comfortable and stretchy enough to get a child’s body shape. It provides enough deep stimulation, leads to calmness, increases body and spatial awareness, and encourages problem-solving. It also helps parents during meltdowns by keeping their children warm and calm. It can be used for therapeutic reasons, so highly recommended by therapists and parents. Sensory Body Sock (Small, 40″L x 27″ W) – Stretchy Sensory Sox for 3-5 Years Old Kids with SPD, Autism, ADHD – Deep Pressure Sensory Sack for Self-Calming and Relaxing: Health & Household 

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