We all know about our 5 senses: seeing, hearing, touching, tasting and smelling. These senses are responsible for gathering information from our external environment and then bringing them to our brain for processing. Wherever you are reading this, there are sensory stimuli all around you.
What can you hear? The hum of your fridge, the breeze in the trees, the distant noises of traffic and children playing (or calling for you from another room!).
What can you see? The light. Where is it coming from? What colours are surrounding you?
What can you smell? Perhaps your lunch?
What can you taste? Your coffee from earlier?
And what can you feel? The floor under your feet and the chair you’re sitting on, the scrunchie in your hair or the not-so-subtle scratch of a label catching your skin.
Sensory input is coming at us constantly but our brains have become accustomed to tuning out the majority of that stimulation because it helps us cope and not get too overwhelmed by all of the information our senses are gathering.
But sometimes we find ourselves in unfamiliar environments where sensory stimulation might get the better of us and cause us to feel overwhelmed. This is called sensory overload and it occurs when the body is unable to process, organise and respond to all the incoming sensory input.
What is sensory overload?
Maybe it’s the repetitive song on the radio when you are stuck in traffic and running late. Or the bright florescent lights in the gym coupled with the pumping music after a tiring day. Or the sun beating down on you while you are waiting to be helped at the traffic department.
These are some situations where we might start to feel flustered, frustrated and overwhelmed. We might turn off the radio, shorten our gym workout, feel unmotivated or become snappy at the traffic department when finally it is our turn to be helped.
If this can happen to adults who have had many years to form and create helpful sensory patterns, imagine how much more often it will occur in a child who is in the process of forming and reforming these brain connections and patterns. And although this can happen to anyone, it is more common in children who have a sensitive temperament or have difficulty processing sensory information.
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Sensory processing overload in children
Children need help to manage their sensory load. All children are different and have different filters for their senses and sensory thresholds. For example, one baby might sleep through noise, while another cannot.
Children do not yet have the tools and coping skills necessary to handle all the sensory information their bodies are processing. When the sensory information is not filtered or processed properly our little ones may go into sensory overload.
Behaviours that may be difficult for us to understand and may seem random or unprovoked may in fact simply be your little one expressing that they are not managing to filter and process all the sensory information that is headed their way!
Can you prevent sensory overload in a child?
By catching the signs of sensory overload early, you can help your child to self-regulate and possibly prevent a sensory meltdown or having your child go into ‘fight, flight, or freeze’ mode. Sensory overload is not the same as a sensory meltdown, but it can be the precursor to one.
When children have sensory processing challenges, it makes them more susceptible to sensory overload. They may not be able to recognise the signs themselves until they are slowly taught to do so. This is why it is important for their parents or nannies to be on the lookout for clues that indicate that sensory overload is happening.
It is also important to talk about those signs with the child to help them recognise the signs of approaching sensory overload in themselves. This is something that is usually best done later when the child is calm and no longer showing signs of sensory overload.
What are the signs of sensory processing overload in children?
Your child may be experiencing sensory processing overload if they:
- appear to have a higher level of activity (they are over-excited) or sensitivity than normal during or following an activity
- become increasingly distracted, disoriented or confused
- may feel nauseous and/or vomit
- are suddenly pale or flushed, sweaty, or have clammy skin
- experience rapid or shallow breathing
- have decreased or increased muscle tone
- experience tremors
- have a glazed-over look in the eyes or signs of a possible seizure
- feel drowsy or fatigued
- experience sleeplessness
- are irritable and/or have angry outbursts
- “shut down” and refuse to participate in an activity
- make poor eye contact
- cover their eyes around bright lights
- cover their ears to avoid loud sounds or voices
- avoid being touched or touching others
- constantly change tasks, never finishing one
- are fidgety and restless
How to prevent sensory overload in children:
There are ways to prevent your child from experiencing sensory overload. If you worry your child will become overstimulated, try to:
- Monitor the environment. Be on the lookout for things that may be giving out too much sensory input.
- Reduce the visual and auditory clutter in your home, especially in rooms the child spends the most time.
- Avoid places and situations that will have too much stimulus. When those situations can’t be avoided, provide tools such as noise-reducing headphones to reduce sensory input.
- Take extra time and give warnings to help the child prepare for any transition times.
- Maintain a predictable schedule and routine.
- Use calming strategies and breathing techniques. For example: sniff a flower.
- Work with a qualified Occupational Therapist (OT).
What to do if your child is experiencing sensory processing overload:
Other helpful strategies that may help to calm a child who is experiencing – or is about to experience – sensory processing overload:
- Take a sensory break. What this looks like will vary from child to child. One child might need a dark, quiet space, while another might need to be outdoors and active.
- Empower your child to recognise the signs that they are starting to feel overwhelmed and help them figure out what they need to do in order to self regulate.
- Create a safe sensory corner: a crate with big cushions, books, and some calm music or a low-light lava lamp.
- Jumping on a trampoline or swinging.
- Doing wall push-ups.
- Chewing something very chewy like biltong or dried fruit.
- Asking for a nice big hug, giving themselves a big hug or hugging a favourite toy.
- Wrapping your little one up in a towel or blanket and providing deep pressure by using your hands to ‘walk’ all over them.
- Listening to calm music.
- Playing with a slinky.
- Shaking a snow or glitter globe and watching the elements settle.
- Having a dark tent to retreat into.
- Running to the tree and back or walking on hands and feet like a bear.
Remember that children and adults alike can become overstimulated through the input received from their senses. As adults, we have learnt tools and coping skills to prevent ourselves from having big, public meltdowns. But our little ones still need lots of help, and that is ok!
Keeping our children in a state of sensory calm rather than allowing them to become overstimulated can take some trial and error. If you are finding that your child struggles at a similar time of the day, try to rethink and adjust the sensory stimuli around that time. You might find that different strategies also work best at different times of the day.