Dealing with Sensory Overload

By: Megan Fickert, Therapy Aide

What is Sensory Overload?

Simply put, sensory overload is when one’s senses become overwhelmed to the point that a person is negatively impacted. Sensory overload can affect anyone but is particularly common among those with developmental disabilities like ADHD or autism that cause difficulty with filtering external input that other people might find perfectly tolerable.

Sensory overload can be a physically painful experience. As a small child, if I was outside and someone a block away was mowing their lawn, I would crouch low to the ground and clasp my hands over my ears. I used to run out of the bathroom in elementary school because of the automatic toilets, and to this day, I still have to cover my ears whenever I flush!

To an observer, it will often be obvious what is happening to a person experiencing sensory overload, but other times people may simply appear distracted or disengaged from their surroundings or may lash out in frustration instead.

For many disabled people, sensory overload becomes an everyday challenge. Let’s go over some ways of dealing with it.

Prevention

The ideal scenario is preventing instances of overload from happening in the first place. This means being mindful of your surroundings and planning ahead. Know how certain stimuli affect you or others. Have an escape route in mind and a way to communicate your needs. Avoid situations you know will lead to sensory overload if you can.

But of course, life doesn’t work seamlessly and there will always be unexpected scenarios that bring on overload. Here is how you can help yourself or someone else when it arises.

1. Remove Yourself

If possible, one of the quickest ways to handle overload is to remove oneself entirely. If you begin to feel overwhelmed, excuse yourself or ask someone to help you get out of the area. If you are assisting someone else, keep an eye on their reactions and give them chances to escape their environment if it seems like they have become overloaded.

Some adults and children may not have the self-awareness or communication skills to let others know they have become overloaded, so check in with them often when you are in especially stimulating or busy environments, and remember to take breaks even if sensory overload hasn’t occurred yet.

2. Block Incoming Senses

If leaving is not an option, the next best thing is to block stimuli. Wear earplugs or headphones if sound is an issue. Cover your eyes, look to the floor or even hide under a blanket to block visual input. Plug your nose to keep smells away. Have alternative clothes in case you become irritated by tags, seams or textures.

3. Ask for Help

In some cases it may be possible to ask for help. Admittedly this can be a scary task and isn’t always feasible, but some venues may be able to accommodate your needs if you speak up! Ask for the volume to be lowered or lights to be turned down, ask to be seated away from others. This is often best done as part of prevention, but sometimes it’s necessary to ask for help on the spot, too.

4. Override External Input

When it comes to sensory overload, sometimes the most overwhelming part is experiencing excess stimuli that we have no control over. To counter this, it might help to create your own stimuli to focus on instead. (Be mindful that in public scenarios, this might not be possible if it will be disruptive for others). 

Stimming, or self-stimulatory behavior, is often a natural reaction to sensory overload. If external sound is bothersome, listen to music or make sounds of your own to focus on instead! Draw a picture or focus on a specific object to drown out other visual input. Flap your hands, wiggle your toes, or stomp your feet to express control over how your body feels. Use a weighted blanket to control proprioceptive input.

Basic Sensory Overload Kit

Here is a list of some good items to keep on hand for situations when sensory overload may be expected. Because different things work for different people, make sure to customize your own kit with what works for you based on the situation and circumstances.

  • Ear protection (headphones, earplugs)
  • Eye protection (sunglasses, hats, eye masks)
  • Hand fidgets (tangles, stress balls, marble mazes, etc.)
  • Chewable fidgets (handheld or wearable “chewelry”)
  • Weight/pressure tools (blankets, vests, compression garments)

Sensory Overload Summary

Ultimately, how one deals with sensory overload will greatly depend on the individual and the situation, but these are the basics on how to help yourself or others when faced with it in daily life.

Remember that instances of overload are inevitable, but being proactive and utilizing tools at your disposal can minimize these unpleasant experiences for yourself or someone you care about.

To learn more about sensory processing disorder and how we can help, visit: https://www.easterseals.com/dfv/our-programs/sensory-processing-disorder.html

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