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What Sensory Overload Looks Like (and How to Calm It)

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Sensory overload? If you aren’t the parent or caregiver of a child living with autism spectrum disorder or sensory processing disorder (SPD), you may not be familiar with the term. However, if you have ever seen a child (or an adult) experiencing a sensory meltdown (overload) — you likely can recall this encounter.

For those of you who are brand new, “sensory processing,” in a nut shell, refers to the way our nervous system receives information from the senses and produces appropriate behavioral and motor responses. This may seem like an automatic or “involuntarily” process; however, for some children and adults, sensory processing can be a major challenge.

As a pediatric occupational therapist and a mother, I try my best to fully understand each child and his or her sensory needs, both at home and in my practice. Children living with autism spectrum disorder or sensory processing disorder can tend to experience sensory overload or adverse reactions to sensory input. In addition, toddlers and young children may not yet have fully-integrated sensory systems and may experience sensory overload more often than older children (hence meltdowns and temper tantrums). As a result, these children have a greater tendency to move from PNS (parasympathetic nervous system response — calm and alert state) to SNS (sympathetic nervous system response — fight or flight state) in the presence of certain sensory stimuli. These children may perceive what might otherwise be considered “normal” or “routine” sensory input as overwhelming or even painful. This explains why they can often experience a fight or flight state (sometimes known as a meltdown or an adrenaline response) in the presence of these sensory stimuli.

Each child/person is very different in terms of the type or amount of sensory input that causes this reaction. Children living with autism spectrum disorder or sensory processing disorder can have a hard time with self-regulation — which can make matters even more difficult, since they may need assistance to calm. As parents and caregivers, we need to recognize when a child is having a “fight or flight” reaction (sensory overload or meltdown) and, most importantly, what triggered it. Children who are experiencing fight or flight may attempt to escape the situation or hide, they may become aggressive, or they may cry/scream inconsolably. There are other indications of a fight or flight response as well (some kiddos may shut down or fall asleep). This reaction is often unique to the individual.

We, as parents and caregivers (and on-lookers!), need to remember that responding from a behavioral point of view is ineffective in these cases. As adults, we need to remove the excessive or adverse stimuli, and we may need to take the child to a calm, quiet place. Some children may need to be held while others may prefer to sit alone with a blanket or a pillow. Some children may like the lighting low while soft music is played, while others may prefer to sit with a fidget of some kind. In addition, attempting to reason with a child during sensory overload is often ineffective. Be a calm presence and try to talk only when the child is ready.

Proprioceptive sensory input can often be calming because it provides us with information about where our body is in space (proprioceptive input is also known as deep pressure input — beanbag chairs, large or weighted stuffed animals, joint compressions, lotion massage, etc. all provide this type of sensory input). When having a meltdown or experiencing sensory overload, proprioceptive input can help decrease over-responsiveness to other types of sensory input; it works in part by encouraging the production of serotonin, a modulator of the central nervous system. Proprioceptive input is often referred to as the body’s natural tranquilizer because of this regulatory effect. In other words, proprioception helps to counteract the “noxious” stimuli the child was unable to effectively process.

Certain types of vestibular sensory input (sometimes referred to as movement input) can also be calming. However, it is important to note that vestibular input can be calming or alerting. In general, slow rhythmic movement can be calming while fast movements with stops and starts can be alerting. Some children who are in the midst of a sensory meltdown respond positively to swinging on a swing or rocking in a chair. Other children prefer to bounce on a yoga ball or jump on a trampoline in times of stress. It is important to have a basic understanding of sensory input that is calming to your child (as each child has an individual response to sensory input) before trying any of these activities. Always talk to your child’s pediatrician and/or occupational therapist before trying any new sensory activities.

Editor’s note: Any medical information included should not be taken as medical advice. For questions or concerns regarding health, please consult a doctor or medical professional.

Image via Thinkstock.

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Originally published: December 6, 2016
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