Sensory Overload
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Sensory Overload!

Imagine walking into a supermarket and finding objects - trolleys, people, everything - moving at twice the normal speed. This often is the experience of a child with autism. Sensory overload results, and it can be terrifying.

A World Moving Too Fast

Studies show that children with autism see simple movements occurring twice as fast as the rest of us do. An increased ability to sense motion can sometimes be helpful (just think of sports), but when it exceeds a manageable level, sensory overload occurs.

A lot of what a child understands about the world comes from their senses. Overwhelming sensory input affects social interactions and general behaviour. Different children respond in different ways. In one child it might show as an over-response, such as a tantrum with extreme ‘stimming’. Another child might withdraw and not respond.

(‘Stimming’ is self-stimulatory behaviour through repetitive physical movement or sound.)

Of course, we want to prepare our children to live in the real world and so learning to deal with a supermarket visit, for example, is important. Some simple techniques can help prepare a child.

Techniques to Help Avoid Sensory Overload

Prepare the child for what’s coming up.

  • Coach the child in advance. For example, you might say: “The shop is going to seem very busy, with lots of a quick moves and noise. Even if it doesn’t feel nice, it’s quite safe and I will be with you all the time. We are going to shop for 8 things and then we will go home. Will that be OK for you?”
  • Be highly specific about what’s involved, and always stick to the promised plan.

Try working with a visual schedule.

  • A visual schedule can lessen anxiety for the child with autism spectrum disorder. For example, show a picture of the car to represent the journey to the supermarket, then show a picture of packed shelves, then the till and check-out assistant, then the car again for the homeward journey, and finally your house. In this way you make the journey understandable and predictable, with a clear end in sight. 
  • Talk through the steps of the journey as they unfold. “I told you there would be a check-out person, see how kind she looks…”
Imaginary Play
At Mindstretch we use imaginary play to familiarise our children with everyday activities, and so make them less potentially overwhelming.

Start small and build from there.

  • Start with short visits and gradually increase the time with each visit. This helps ensure that the visit — be it to a supermarket, the beach, a party, or anywhere else — ends well and leaves a positive memory.

Avoid Hurrying to Help Prevent Sensory Overload

If a child with autism seems to be moving very slowly as they move through their environment, think twice about hurrying them up. Perhaps it’s their way of making sense of the world.

There’s also a need to modify your own activity when interacting with a child with autism. Here are some things to consider:

  • Reduce unnecessary movements or quick, jerky movements.
  • Try to talk slowly and clearly, and use a calm, even tone.
  • Dress in neutral colours and avoid wearing a strong perfume or cologne.
  • Warn a child if you intend to touch or physically guide them.

To Learn More

See these two articles for a nice overview of the concept.

See our article Calming Interventions for ways to soothe your child.

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