What Is Sensory Overload?

By Ellen Braaten, PhD
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Q

My 5-year-old was recently identified as having issues with sensory processing, and the evaluator talked about “sensory overload.” What does that mean?

A

We’ve all experienced sensory overload at some point or another. We just don’t stop to think about it, or give it a name.

Sensory overload happens when something around us 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.

It’s usually easy enough to escape the discomfort we’re feeling. We leave the party, eat somewhere else, or walk out of the room where the TV is. And if not, we just put up with our discomfort.

But overload is more intense and much harder to deal with for kids with sensory processing issues. 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 in children.

Also, many items in a restroom can operate automatically and are out of kids’ control. Toilets flush without anyone flushing them; dryers dry without anyone pushing a button. 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 in your child. Here are some signs that your child may be experiencing sensory overload.

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

  • Avoiding certain places

  • Crying

  • Running out of certain situations

  • Shutting down and not responding to questions

  • Complaining about certain clothing or textures

If you see any of these signs, you can try to remove her from the environment. You can also try to change the environment itself. You might ask to change tables at a restaurant to move away from speakers playing loud music, for instance.

You may not be able to avoid some of these situations. But you can prepare your child for what’s coming, and brainstorm ways she can manage. Also, having her participate in a sensory diet may help improve her self-regulation and make the overload feel less intense.


Find out what you can do if you’re concerned your child has sensory processing issues, or if you’ve just found out your child has sensory processing issues. You can also:

About the Author

About the Author

Ellen Braaten, PhD 

is the director of LEAP and codirector of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds, both at Massachusetts General Hospital.

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