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Autistic Adults Share What Helped (and What Didn't) During Sensory Overload as Kids

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Both of my children with disabilities also have sensory processing issues. Clothes, food textures, lights and noises that might not bother other people can be quite challenging for them. It is especially difficult when more than one of their senses becomes engaged and they experience sensory overload.

For several years, my youngest daughter had a hard time participating in extended family functions. The sensory overload made it impossible for her to enjoy her time with family, so she spent most of her time in a room, alone, away from people. For me, it was sad that our family did not know her personality and the wonderful person she is, but I was how difficult it was for her to participate in large gatherings.

We have used noise-canceling headphones, weighted blankets and essential oils. These have helped, but sensory overload can happen at any time. Now that my girls are older, they are able to say they need to get away to a quiet place, or they can go change their clothes if a clothing item does not “feel” right.

I have a friend who found out as an adult she has sensory processing disorder. I had several conversations with her about what would have helped her as a kid. Her insights were helpful for me as a mom, so we reached out to our autism community — since sensory issues tend to be common with autism — and asked, “What helps with sensory overload? What would have helped you as a child? What should parents keep in mind?”

These were their responses:

1. “Keep in mind that the ‘behaviors’ are not a conscious choice the person makes. Noise reduction, sunglasses, in some cases even a hat or hoodie pulled up can help. Fidget toys, less social pressure to be/act ‘normal,’ having a cool, dark, quiet space to go and process after a busy day of masking can make a huge impact.” — Vanessa B.

2. “Get them out of the situation. Don’t yell over them or get upset or angry. Remember, we are overwhelmed by the environment. Don’t be overwhelming yourself. Listen to your child. Respect their space and body. Don’t go touching or forcing them to talk or something.” — Kristy F.

3. “When I said I didn’t like a place, it meant I couldn’t handle it. It’s OK to leave and go somewhere else.” — Di R.

4. “Let your kids stim. Don’t try and suppress it. Let them live and calm themselves down! My stimming was suppressed a lot as a child, and I’ve just learned how to stim to calm myself down and aid myself during sensory heavy situations. Also, breaks. Naps are awesome for chilling out after sensory overload.” — Katie B.

5. On a calm day, identify clothing that calms: fitted, seamless, natural fibers for me. Plan the friendliest outfit for anticipated challenging days. Find music that’s relaxing (but not necessarily what others consider relaxing), and load up an iPod with noise-canceling headphones. Take a quiet activity or craft like knitting, books or another craft and plan breaks.” — Rachel V.

6. “Having a detailed itinerary, even for ordinary days, helps a lot. A lot of us like having a plan for the day and knowing what’s coming up and when is helpful, especially if there’s a break in our normal routine.” — Vanessa B.

7. “Please don’t get upset about your autistic child’s sensory overload because it only makes it so much worse. Be understanding, and stay calm. If you can, get your child somewhere with fewer stimuli; if that’s not possible, things like noise-canceling headphones, sunglasses, or even just a comfort toy helps a lot.” — Jessica C.

8. “I need someone to get me to focus on one thing. Give me a task or something very specific to accomplish. Then I can activate my hyperfocus and block out the rest. Otherwise, I have a kit with toys, my phone, and always sunglasses and headphones, plus any tools I can think of to fix any random sensory discomfort throughout the day. Also, if it’s a fancy dress party, I almost always bring a change of comfy clothes with me. Also, setting the expectations of the environment is essential. I need to be able to prepare myself for any sensory assault at all, so a little reconnaissance is always prudent. And, as always, having one part of my environment that I control is vital to my comfort in new situations. I had my autonomy taken away from me often as a child so losing any measure of it will trigger me.” — Abby L.

9. “Carry ear defenders with you. Stim toys. And if they are on the verge of getting overload then leave the place that is causing the issue. It isn’t worth it.” — Jessica T.

10. “Saying ‘calm down’ or ‘relax’ hurts my head more because I can’t. Usually, that will make me more freaked out. ‘Why can’t I just calm down?’ Which leads me to get more overwhelmed.” — Kristin C.

11. “Have a sensory overload kit with fidget/stim toys, headphones, snacks and anything else that would help calm them. Also, have a schedule or timetable of your day and talk about it at the start of the week and the start of each day.” — Hannah H.

12. “What helps sensory overload? 1) Knowing what to expect… as much as possible… and plan ahead as much as possible. (Going to a new restaurant? Be sure to study the menu online before going there…) 2) Being well rested. 3) Having an ‘escape route’… and a place to go to get away from it. 4) Knowing what triggers the overload (crowds, certain noises), and avoiding those things as much as possible. (Unfortunately, one can never totally avoid most ‘triggers’, so managing it as best I can). 5) Always having my ‘survival kit’ (earplugs, headphones, sunglasses, etc.) Parents should keep in mind that when ‘overload’ happens, and perhaps a meltdown is looming, or underway, in perhaps the most ‘inconvenient’ time, the child is not trying to give you a hard time, the child is having a hard time. Meltdowns due to sensory overload are not the child ‘misbehaving.’ What would have helped me as a child? Knowing I was autistic instead of not having a clue until I was well into my 40s.” — Ron K.

13. “Pay attention, and learn your child’s stimming patterns. Take them out of the situation and help them through a few minutes of breathing exercises. Then calmly and quietly discuss what’s making them anxious. Your child needs to trust you, and you need to teach them how to cope so they can teach others they will grow closer to over time, so those people can help. And do not for any reason make any derogatory comments about meltdowns or stimming at any time.” — Christian M.

14. “I find a bath helps me to chill down.” — Ruthy W.

15. “Avoid bombarding us when we transition between tasks, like asking us several questions or getting us on major topics as soon as we come home from school/work. Being able to have time to comfortably adjust to different environmental ‘modes’ is really helpful. And don’t make us feel judged if we need to step out of social situations, like a family dinner.” — Benjamin M.

16. “I wear a Hibermate now and it would have helped me then.” — Ashley K.

17. “If your child does any damage during the meltdown, calmly explain what they did wrong, but never make fun of your child and berate them about it like my mother did.” — Pat H.

18. “If it occurs in a crowded place, amusement park, restaurant, etc., make sure you have earplugs with you to help them drown out some of the overload or take them to a place that is less busy. Don’t yell or raise your voice, because it will only make the overload worse.” — John K.

What would you add?

Getty image by LittleBee80

Originally published: March 29, 2023
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