Calming Sensory Overload in Children with Autism
Rose Akinsehinwa October 2016
Children living with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) tend to experience sensory overload or react adversely to sensory input than typical children. Each child is very different in terms of the type or amount of sensory input that causes this reaction. Sensory overload has been described as – when sensory inputs are exaggerated and explode beyond anything tolerable. The impact can makes the world overwhelming. An example could be of someone who has a sensory overload with sound and it has been described by someone who has experienced it as “loud unfiltered noises all intensely bombarding from every direction at the same time with no auto filters”. Sensory overload can cause the individual stress, anxiety and possibly incredible physical pain which can lead to panic and meltdowns. What makes matters even more difficult is that many children with autism have a hard time with self-regulation and will need our help to be calm by:
- Recognize when a child is having a sensory overload or meltdown and try to find out exactly what triggered it. Children who are experiencing a sensory overload may attempt to escape the situation or hide, they may become aggressive, or they may cry and scream inconsolably. Some children may respond by shutting down or falling asleep. This reaction is often unique to the individual. Triggers may include loud noises, bright lights, temperature, and other stimuli that affect the human senses.
- Remove the triggers or stimuli and where it is not in your control, you will need to take the child away from that location to a calm, quiet place (this could be a sensory room if you have one). Some children may need to be held, while others may prefer to sit alone with a blanket or a pillow. Some children may like the lighting low while soft music is played, while others may prefer to sit with a fidget of some kind. Ear plugs will help when the distress is sound.
- Introduce calming techniques through deep pressure input like beanbag chairs, large or weighted stuffed animals/blankets, joint compressions, massages. These have been proven to help decrease hyper responsiveness to other types of sensory inputs. This works by encouraging the production of serotonin. Serotonin is regarded by researchers as a chemical that is responsible for maintaining mood balance. It is defined by medical sciences as the hormone that carries signals along and between nerves. Serotonin is thought to be especially active in constricting smooth muscles and contributing to wellbeing and happiness and is referred to as the body’s natural tranquilizer.
- Other calming inputs that might work could be at the child’s preference. Some children who are stressed or in the midst of a sensory meltdown respond positively to swinging on a swing or rocking in a chair, while others might prefer to bounce on an exercise ball or jump on a trampoline.
It is important to have a basic understanding of what help is calming to your child (as each child will response uniquely to sensory input) before trying any sensory activities. In addition, attempting to reason with a child during sensory overload is usually ineffective. Be a silent calm presence and try to talk only when the child is ready. Remember, always talk to your child’s pediatrician or occupational therapist before trying any new sensory activities.