A lot of children with autism spectrum disorder experience some degrees of sensory overload. This is when one or more of the body’s senses is hyper-stimulated to a level that exceeds their coping mechanisms. While sensory overload is commonly associated with ASD it can also be applied to other conditions such as anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and even obsessive-compulsive disorder.

A lot of people with autism spectrum disorder develop a strong sensitivity to their environments. Many also have unusually delicate sensory systems, which makes it increasingly common for them to exceed their threshold for sight, hearing, touch, smell, or taste.

It’s also worth noting that many individuals with ASD are often unable to selectively filter out environmental stimuli such as car alarms, air conditioners, and crowd noise. This can lead to behaviors such as “stimming” that help people with autism better cope with stress and sensory overload.

To help a child with sensory overload issues and improve their response outcomes it helps to familiarize yourself with a few important details.

What Are Signs & Symptoms of Sensory Overload

Sensory overload is sometimes referred to as “Sensory Processing Disorder” or SPD. This is a variety of similar conditions in which an individual doesn’t respond normally to common environmental stimuli. This might also include being over-responsive, Sensory Hypersensitivity, or even under-responsive, which is known as sensory hyposensitivity.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that sensory overload is more common in children with autism spectrum disorder that includes comorbidities like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Yet sensory overload can also affect adults with ASD including those with high-functioning autism.3

In some of the more severe cases, the hypersensitivity overload can be so extreme that a person will react to sensations that others may not even recognize. This can trigger extreme symptoms in people with autism. This can manifest as:

  • Anxiety responses
  • Irrational fears & phobias
  • Restlessness
  • Irritability or short temperedness
  • Outbursts of anger
  • Over Excitement
  • Muscle tension or muscle rigidity
  • Increased heart rate
  • Rapid breathing
  • Profuse sweating

Observable behaviors that might also occur in an individual suffering from sensory overload include:

  • Covering the ears or eyes
  • Attempting to physically block out the stimulus
  • Not wanting to be touched
  • Not wanting to be approached
  • Self-harming behaviors

Stimming & Sensory Overload

A lot of individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder develop classic responses to sensory overload known as “stimming.” These are self-stimulatory behaviors that often manifest as repetitive motions and behaviors that are both distracting and self-soothing. This might include things like:

  • Hand-flapping
  • Rocking
  • Repeating words
  • Repeating phrases
  • Sitting on the floor and spinning

In a small percentage of extreme responses, stimming can even lead to self-harming behavior such as head banging, ear-clapping, self-scratching, or self-hitting.

Identifying The Underlying Causes of Sensory Overload

Comorbidities can be an issue when it comes to understanding the underlying causes of sensory overload. Especially if the child or adult with ASD also has ADHD, PTSD, or some other type of developmental or psychiatric disorders.

A lot of children with autism spectrum disorder lack social attention. This can translate into decreased awareness of social cues and the expected modes of social interactions. Many times they will often be hyperattentive to objects or environmental stimuli that others either filter out or fail to notice.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that the types of stimuli that trigger sensory overload can also vary from one person to the next. This might include things like:

  • Loud noises such as lawnmowers, washing machines, ticking clocks, or a loud window air conditioner.
  • Sights like a flickering fluorescent lamp or curtains that flutter in the breeze on a sunny day.
  • Smells that have heavy odors and distinct smells like cleaning products, perfumes, new carpets, or pungent foods
  • Textures that are unappealing, slimy, or cold.

Other Forms Of Sensory Overload

While the main senses of sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch are primary causes of sensory overload, they are not the only causes to consider. An individual with ASD also overreacts to changes in balance, motor skills, and body awareness. These are known by technical terms and can manifest as different behaviors.

Vestibular Sensory Overload

This is a term related to the structures in the inner ear that detect movement and changes in the position of the head. The vestibular system tells a person when their head is upright or tilted even when their eyes are shut.

Proprioception Sensory Overload

This refers to an individual’s understanding of where their body is in space, in relation to other objects. The proprioceptive system is composed of receptors in muscles that monitor muscle length, tension, and pressure.

Interception Sensory Overload

This is related to recognition of what is going on inside one’s own body. It includes simple things like knowing when you are hungry, full, hot, cold, or thirsty. The interoceptive system involves a network of cranial nerves that interprets changes in the digestive tract, blood vessels, and other organ systems.

Tips To Help Manage Sensory Overload

There are a few things you can do to help manage or minimize sensory overload. This starts with ensuring the right amount of sensory input.

It’s important to learn how to recognize signs and symptoms of sensory overload so you can act swiftly or appropriately when it occurs.

It also helps to encourage them to communicate what is causing frustration, anger, or agitation so that you can remove the offending trigger. This includes asking what would help them feel calm, such as a change of environment or even a nap.

For some individuals, a weighted vest or blanket may provide a sense of calm and security. Even a favorite stuffed toy or pillow might be helpful.

It also helps to make time every day for regular exercise to help burn off pent-up energy or stress. This can help improve the child’s threshold for tolerance to new or strong stimuli.

Therapy For Sensory Overload

If you are continuing to struggle with managing sensory overload symptoms, you might want to seek the help of an one of our therapy programs. They can help clearly define the cause of the sensory overload as well as develop a customized management strategy tailored to your child’s needs.