Sensory Overload: How to Recognize and Manage the Symptoms.

Sensory Overload

I’ve written several times before about how my disabled son cannot attend basketball games. I mean, like the Sixers. Or, the Harlem Globetrotters. Big-event-like basketball games cause sensory overload. He can go to his brother’s games, depending on the setting.

The last time we tried to attend a Sixers game, he was so overwhelmed that he started gagging. Mind you, I’m not a terrible mom who ignores her son’s pleas for help. The whole situation transpired very quickly and I got him out of there about halfway through the first quarter. We weren’t there long at all.

A girl experiencing sensory overload
Sensory overload often looks like a tantrum or meltdown.

But still, as I sat in the car, waiting for my husband and other son to finish watching the game, my mind wandered back to other similar situations. And there were signs.

At one Harlem Globetrotters game, he was super stimmy. Another time, he hit me repeatedly. My son does not speak, and at the time, I did not put all the information together. As the saying goes, when we know better, we do better.

Now I know his signs of distress and what triggers sensory overload in him. Some situations we will avoid entirely. Like Sixers games.

But, my other son (non-disabled) experienced sensory overload recently. We attended the Penn State vs. Purdue game at the Palestra. In hindsight, there were signs of sensory overload that I missed. Or, I should say, thought that his love of basketball would override the sensory issues.

Despite his love for all things basketball, he wanted to leave the game early. I was reaching my limits myself, but would have stuck it out if he had wanted to stay.

Sensory overload is common for people with anxiety, autism or ADHD. But anyone can experience sensory overload.

What is Sensory Overload?

Sensory overload occurs when the brain is overwhelmed by too much input from the senses. This can include visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, and tactile stimuli.

When the brain is unable to process all of this information, it can lead to feelings of confusion, anxiety, and even physical symptoms such as headaches or fatigue.

Or, in my son’s case, an upset stomach that led to gagging.

It is a processing issue. Mind you, we all have our limits when it comes to processing information, including our interoception.

You know how on TV sometimes, after a tragic incident, you see family members pass out or collapse when hearing the devastating news? It’s because their brains could not process the information–they were overwhelmed.

But, neurotypical people process sensory information differently from neurodivergent people. As a result, neurodivergent people are more likely to be gaslighted or otherwise told that their sensory issues are “nothing” and that they should be able to tolerate it.

There’s a reason some people can listen to very loud rap music or punk rock music, and others can’t. It’s not just a matter of liking or disliking the music–it’s also sensory tolerance.

Sure, we all have preferences. Spicy food vs mild food. Rollercoasters vs the carousel. But there is a sensory component too. And some people cannot process the sensory information as effectively. And there’s nothing wrong with that; it’s just different.

Unfortunately for many kids, they are punished for their sensory overload. When a child reaches their breaking point, it often looks like a meltdown or tantrum. An autistic writer shared her experiences with autistic shutdowns in that article.

What Causes Sensory Overload?

There are several factors that can contribute to sensory overload.

One of the most common is environmental factors, such as loud noises, bright lights, and strong smells. This can be particularly problematic in areas where people are exposed to a constant bombardment of stimuli. Like school!

But, students who struggle with interoceptive responses like what is going on inside their body should be listened to as well.

Additionally, certain conditions such as autism and ADHD can make individuals more susceptible to sensory overload. Anxiety and sensory processing disorder are also particularly susceptible.

Symptoms of Sensory Overload

Symptoms of sensory overload can vary widely, depending on the individual and the severity of the overload. Some people may experience feelings of anxiety or agitation, while others may feel fatigued or disoriented.

In extreme cases, sensory overload can lead to a condition called “sensory overload meltdown,” which is characterized by a complete shutdown of the nervous system and a loss of ability to process any input from the senses.

How to Manage Sensory Overload

To manage sensory overload, it is important to identify the specific triggers that are causing the overload and to take steps to avoid or minimize exposure to them.

This may include things like avoiding loud or crowded places, wearing earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones, or using special lighting to reduce glare.

In addition to avoiding triggers, there are also several strategies that can be used to help the brain process sensory information more effectively. These include things like deep breathing exercises, mindfulness techniques, and cognitive-behavioral therapy.

There are also various tools and assistive devices available to help people with sensory processing disorders manage their symptoms. For example, weighted blankets and vests can provide a sense of deep pressure that can help calm the nervous system.

There are also various apps and software programs that are designed to help individuals with sensory processing disorders, such as those that can block out certain sounds or light.

Recently famous author Chloe Hayden prevented herself from sensory overload at an event she wanted to attend.

Tiktoker Chloe Hayden describes how she dealt with sensory overload.
Author Chloe Hayden describes how she dealt with sensory overload. Chloe wrote “Different, Not Less.”

Overall, sensory overload is a complex issue that can have a significant impact on an individual’s quality of life. However, with the right strategies and tools, it is possible to manage and even overcome this condition.

Caregivers and Sensory Overload

For all the parents, teachers, caregivers and others out there….I can’t stress this enough.

You cannot punish sensory processing skills into a child.

You cannot gaslight sensory processing discomfort out of a child.

Sensory Issues are real.

As a parent, I can tell you, I’VE BEEN THERE.

Saying stupid stuff like “you’re fine!” or “we’re almost done, I promise.” And you know what, it has backfired on me every.single.time.

If a person says that they have had enough and need to go, leave.

Put the IEP or 504 accommodations in writing, and follow them. So often, I see all kinds of sensory accommodations in an IEP, but it’s not followed with fidelity. Child has a meltdown or shutdown due to sensory overload, and voila! Parents are called with an informal suspension for the child.

I am sorry that teachers are asked to do so much with so little. I am sorry that sensory accommodations take extra time and effort. But as the saying goes, an ounce of prevention….

Because we all know too well what happens when they are not followed.

List of possible sensory accommodations
Click image to see complete list of accommodation ideas for an IEP or 504, including sensory.

Sensory Discomfort and Non Speaking Children

Even if a child does not speak, they can send you messages. Their messaging may include:

  • Any “stimmy” behavior that is out of the ordinary for them; either in volume, frequency or intensity. It might be rocking, head shaking, whatever. But look for changes.
  • Withdrawal, such as curling up in a little ball, covering ears, etc.
  • Elopement, which is not limited to autism elopement.
  • Hitting, spitting, trying to leave, yelling, slapping
  • Signs of visible illness, such as shaking, trembling, shivering, fever, gagging, vomiting, coughing.

Preventing Sensory Overload

I’ve accepted that there are some things that my son or my family cannot do, that other people do. Like, going to Sixers games. I’d love for us to go as a family. But my son does not want to go, does not enjoy the experience, and so who am I to force him?

Preventing sensory overload is just a matter of avoiding situations that are unpleasant or even traumatic for the sensitive person.

And, having a backup plan in case you unexpectedly encounter such a situation. For local basketball games, we take two cars so that one of us can bring K home if he finds the setting overwhelming.

We avoid noisy restaurants. When on vacation, we pick hotels close to the attractions we plan to visit, so one of us can go back to the hotel with him if necessary. We’re a fan of “all inclusive” type vacations where we can enjoy many things at the hotel.

It’s one of the reasons we love both Knoebels. We know what to expect there and know it will be a good sensory experience for K.

If they child or adult can speak and express preferences, ASK THEM. And more importantly, honor their requests when they verbalize their preferences.

Acceptance means accepting the person for who they are–not punishing them for being someone they are not. Some of us are just wired differently and have different sensory experiences.

Sensory Processing Disorder

It is important to note that, people with sensory processing disorder (SPD) or Auditory Processing Disorder (APD) are especially vulnerable to sensory overload and may require specialized treatments and therapy for their condition.

Additionally, some people may have a “sensory diet” that is tailored to their specific needs, which can include specific activities and tools to help them regulate their sensory input and avoid overload.

In conclusion, sensory overload is a condition that occurs when the brain is overwhelmed by too much input from the senses. This can lead to feelings of confusion, anxiety, and even physical symptoms such as headaches or fatigue.

To manage sensory overload, it is important to identify the specific triggers that are causing the overload and to take steps to avoid or minimize exposure to them. Additionally, there are various tools and assistive devices available to help people with sensory processing disorders manage their symptoms.

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