What is sensory overload?

Q. My child often gets overwhelmed and upset in loud, crowded places. I can feel that way, too. Why does this happen?

A. Loud, crowded places can be an assault on the senses. People of all ages can get overwhelmed when a lot is going on around them. There’s a name for this: sensory overload.

Sensory overload happens when we’re exposed to a place or thing that overstimulates one or more of our senses. That could be a loud TV, a crowded room, or a noisy, smelly cafeteria. There’s suddenly too much information coming in through our senses for our brain to process.

But overload is more intense and much harder to deal with for kids and adults with sensory processing challenges. Many everyday situations can trigger a response.

Take going to a public restroom, for instance. The noise of the hand dryers, the smell of the bathroom, and the echo of the voices can all be overwhelming and lead to sensory overload.

Also, many things in a public restroom operate automatically and are out of our control. Toilets flush unexpectedly. Dispensers churn out towels as you pass by. Some kids might have so much difficulty coping with these things that they have a meltdown.

The best way to avoid sensory overload is to know what triggers it. People often show one or more of these signs when they’re having a hard time managing.

  • Plugging their ears, shutting their eyes, covering their face

  • Avoiding certain places

  • Crying

  • Running out of certain situations

  • Shutting down and not responding to questions

  • Complaining about certain clothing or textures

So what can help? If possible, you can leave the environment. You can also try to change the environment itself. For example, you might ask to change tables at a restaurant to move away from speakers playing loud music.

It’s not possible to avoid every situation, though. Especially for kids. But you can prepare for what’s coming and brainstorm ways to manage.

You can also try out strategies at home with your child. These include a sensory diet or a sensory-friendly chair. They may help improve your child’s self-regulation and make the overload feel less intense.

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