Sensory overload impacts the daily lives of many children and young adults. It can be difficult to know what to do in a situation when someone is overstimulated, but there are plenty of steps and treatments available to help them manage their emotions. Continue reading to learn more about sensory overload and how to help. 

What is sensory overload?

When all five of the human senses are overstimulated, this is called sensory overload. Someone who struggles with sensory overload will have what is known as sensory processing disorder (SPD). This is a condition that affects how your brain processes sensory information, or stimuli, which includes anything you can see, smell, hear, taste or touch.

Certain sounds, sights, smells, textures and tastes can bring on sensory overload. Bright or flashing lights, loud noises and certain textures of food are just some of the triggers that can lead to a child feeling overwhelmed.

There are two types of sensory processing challenges and many children experience both. Hypersensitivity is an oversensitivity to stimuli, which leads to the child avoiding sensory input because it is just too overwhelming. The other type is hyposensitivity which is an under sensitivity to their senses, leading them to seek out more sensory stimulation. Most children with sensory processing issues try to avoid senses they cannot tolerate, and seek out more of what they can. 

Children with sensory challenges may have an unusually high pain tolerance, because they want to touch things and feel more pressure on their skin. This can often lead to a child playing rough or being overly physical with others, without realising they’ve hurt them.

Different types of sensory processing disorder

Sensory processing disorder is classified by three patterns:

  1. Sensory modulation disorder: The individual has trouble responding to sensory stimuli. They could be over-responsive, under-responsive, or crave stimuli.
  2. Sensory-based motor disorder: This creates difficulty with balance, motor coordination and performing skilled tasks. An individual with sensory-based motor disorder may not know where or how their limbs are moving, for example. 
  3. Sensory discrimination disorder (SDD): The individual will have trouble understanding the stimuli. For example, they may not know exactly how hard to hold an object without breaking it or may find it difficult to understand which way to turn when walking.

How to help with sensory overload

When somebody finds themself in a situation where they feel overwhelmed, there are steps you can take to help them. If you notice regular triggers in your child then you can better prepare in future to avoid situations or sensations that will upset them. You can also encourage your child to attempt to communicate with you about what has upset them, and if there is anything you can do to help them in that situation.

The following steps will show you how to help a child with sensory processing disorder when their senses have become overloaded.

Calming techniques

When a child is experiencing sensory overload, this is the first step to consider. Simple calming techniques like counting to ten and concentrated breathing may help to calm things down straight away.

For other children, watching a calming video such as their favourite movie or television show, listening to some music or reading a book could calm them down and ease the situation.

Take them out of the situation

Another possibility to help with sensory overload could be to simply take your child out of the situation they’re in. If you’ve noticed an obvious trigger, removing them from the area can greatly reduce the severity of the sensory overload. Combining this with any of the calming measures mentioned above is a great way to turn your child’s emotions around quickly.

Consider offering your child a nap, playing in a quiet room, or outside. Some alone time away from the trigger can take their mind off what happened and focus on something else.

Sensory toys

For some children, sensory play can help them to process their sensory overload in a safe environment. Giving them something to hold onto and squeeze, such as a cuddly animal or sensory toy, provides reassurance and an outlet for their feelings. Squeezy balls and fidget toys are also useful, giving your little one something to focus their mind on.

It may not even need to be a toy; any object that your child has clung to that makes them feel safe and calm will help them wonderfully.

Get a family pet

Having a pet in the family gives children something to love, hold and stroke to calm them down. For example, it has been shown that dogs can provide a calming presence for people of all ages. 

When sensory overload occurs, simply sitting with, holding and stroking a family pet can greatly improve the situation and calm down an individual who is struggling. Service or emotional support dogs have been specially trained to help autistic children with their emotions.

Caring for a pet also teaches a child responsibility and routine, while walking a dog provides essential daily exercise outdoors.

Sensory support at Seashell

Seashell is dedicated to providing a creative, happy, and safe environment for children and young people with complex learning disabilities and additional communication needs. Our 30-acre site provides a safe environment with plenty of space to enable students to develop their outdoor skills, such as road safety skills and orienteering as well as allowing the use of adaptable bikes and walking aids.

If you’d like to find out more about what we do at Seashell, do not hesitate to get in touch. Whatever your child’s needs, we’re here to help and support you.