Anyone can get sensory overload. It can occur when an individual is in a loud or colorful environment. It can feel as though you’re taking in too much, leading to a pressing sense of overwhelm.
When someone lives with autism, this experience may become commonplace. A person with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often has sensory hypersensitivity. For example, what might not sound loud to you can seem blaring to them.
Ultimately, supporting someone with autism means being aware of their heightened potential for sensory overload.
Sensory overload: one of the challenges of autism
Here, we’re talking about sensory overload, which people with autism more commonly experience because of oversensitivity in combination with their balance and spatial awareness. On the flip side, ASD can cause undersensitivity, making it hard to see details or discern verbal cues.
Ultimately, the sensory differences that someone with autism experiences present a significant challenge. And while hyposensitivity can make social settings and general daily living more difficult, hypersensitivity can send a person into sensory overload. As a result, they might have a meltdown or shut down completely.
To better understand sensory overload, let’s look at the way it affects the individual senses:
- Sight: Things might seem brighter and it may be difficult to focus on the whole rather than individual details
- Hearing: Settings might sound overly loud and background noise can be more difficult to filter out
- Taste: Foods and drinks taste stronger or feel textured, which can result in picky eating
- Touch: Being touched can feel uncomfortable and even painful, clothing may feel scratchy or otherwise intolerable, and certain food textures may be problematic
- Smell: Odors are heightened, which can make perfume smell overpowering and bathroom activities challenging
Sensory overload can also affect someone with ASD’s balance and their awareness of their body, both as they move through the world and as it sends them cues (e.g., tells them they need to use the bathroom).
Signs of sensory overload
To be aware of sensory overload, look for these indicators.
- Avoidance. Once the person with ASD recognizes that something overstimulates them (e.g., bright lights, certain fabrics in clothing), they usually actively try to avoid it. That can lead to challenges in adopting certain behaviors. That could be picky eating or refusal to enter certain environments, do specific activities, or wear certain clothes.
- Stimming. Many children with ASD self-soothe through self-stimulatory behavior, or stimming. This usually looks like repetitive sounds or body movements.
- Meltdown. A strong expression of emotion indicates that the person is experiencing sensory overload.
- Shutdown. In sensory overload, the child may stop talking or responding in general. They may even cover their eyes or ears in an effort to block out the overstimulation.
If you have a child with ASD, tune into how they experience the world. Once you learn what’s bothering them, you can start making modifications to help them. That may mean dimming the lights, enjoying quiet time at home, choosing softer clothing for them, etc.
Here at Stride Autism Centers, we can also help you both identify hypersensitivity in your child and find the right modifications to help them succeed. What’s more, we’ll adopt those modifications here at our Centers so they can enjoy their time with us as much as possible.
To learn more about how we help preschoolers with ASD, get in touch.