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Sensory Overload

Everything we learn about the world around us has come to us through one or our senses. 
However, a person living with autism may live in the same environment and their perception is extremely different.  These differences in perception lead to a very uncommon world that is responded to in a diverse way.  These experiences may include hypersensitivity, hyposensitivity, or fluctuation in the intensity of the perception.  This leads to the feeling of being over whelmed, confused and even scared.  Behaviors appear and people may shut down, block out, or avoid the experience. Understanding the way people with autism experience the world around them will help us make adaptations as well as promote a quality of life for everyone sharing the same environment.

Learn to read behaviors and look for patterns of sensory – perceptual experiences. Do they cover their ears when you think the noise level is okay?  Do they smell things or avoid places with strong odors?

Watch repetitive behaviors - These behaviors are often a key to understanding how the child is trying to cope with the difficulties he is facing in the environment -   The movements of hand flapping, rocking, solid humming sounds and spinning can give clues to the needs of the child.  They may be avoiding an overload or providing themselves with a sensory need to calm.

Try to understand and relate to their perceptual world - Consider your own feelings if asked to read under a flickering florescent light which might appear in intensity of a strobe light.

Perception may be handled only one sensory type of information at a time - If a child has a processing delay they may also experience perception delays, some children will focus on one sensory mode at a time. They may listen intently but appear to be looking past you.  They may be intent on what you are showing them and not hear a word you say.

Consider their ability to discriminate relevant and irrelevant information – They may hear a fan and a person talking in a classroom but not know which one is more important to listen to.  They may look at a picture and not be able to determine what should be focused on.  They may attend to details and not the whole picture.

Work to find the best mode or modality of sharing information and simplify their environment.   Avoid perception that could by fragmented, delayed, or hypersensitive. – Some children are hypersensitive to certain fabrics or tags in their clothing.  Some children can see pictures better with a plain dark background rather than a typical picture background.

Provide sensory substitution – Provide visuals for instruction rather than just verbal instruction or provide head phones to block out additional noise.

Be aware that there may be inconsistency of perceptions.  Some days the perceptions can be understood and dealt with and other days they may not.  The intensity may vary as well.  Some days the amount of light may affect the intensity of perceptions.  Like heat tolerances affect many adults.   If you have consecutive days with the same intense perceptions you become less able to tolerate them

A child who is shutting down to sensory overload is trying to control their environment.  It is best to learn about the sensory system and try to prevent the need to withdraw from the world.  There is no single strategy that will work for all children.  Our goal should be to learn about their individual sensory needs and to try to provide a sensory safe environment.

A child may need a quiet place to withdraw or have items on hand to help them cope with sensory needs.  Items might include sunglasses, favorite toy, headphones, vibrating toys, a card requesting a break, or sensory toys.  As children grow to adults they learn ways to regulate their own sensory needs by going for a walk, chewing gum, avoiding crowds, and wearing headphones to listen to music. 

As caregivers and family members who support children with autism, we need to assist by observing behaviors children demonstrate and work to provide a safe sensory environment.


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