Among the many issues that children on the autism spectrum face, one of the more common ones is an unusually high susceptibility to sensory overload. And while this issue is very commonly associated with autism, it’s worth noting that not every child with autism will struggle with sensory overload. In fact, Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is recognized as its own condition and children who experience SPD aren’t necessarily on the autism spectrum. SPD can be a challenging problem to work through since it can worsen problematic behaviors, or even be the source of those behaviors in the first place.
What is SPD?
SPD is when the brain and nervous system have problems integrating external stimuli in a useful way. Where people without SPD are able to focus, remain calm, and react rationally to multiple stimuli, people with SPD can have sensitivities to particular stimuli individually or begin to feel overwhelmed in the presence of multiple moderate to strong stimuli. SPD can also express itself in the form of under-responding to stimuli or reacting poorly to not having enough stimulation.
Common Causes of Sensory Overload
Children with SPD can often have sensitivities to certain smells, textures, or sounds and can become especially sensitive in an environment with lots of different types of stimuli. For instance, children on the autism spectrum who experience SPD often have aversions to sticky or slimy textures. Children with SPD also tend to feel averse to fabrics like wool or low-quality materials often found in outfits like Halloween costumes. Strong smells, such as soaps, detergents, and perfumes, can also be factors that lead to sensory overload.
Certain situations or places can also be common culprits of sensory overload, such as the grocery store, arcade, or sometimes a classroom that has simply gotten too noisy. This is why bath time for children on the autism spectrum can become such a challenge sometimes; there are multiple stimuli, such as strong-smelling soaps, slimy shampoo, and a noisy tub that can build up to cause sensory overload quickly.
Signs of Sensory Overload
If your child struggles with SPD, you have likely noticed behaviors such as screaming, aggression, or a general lack of cooperation. These inappropriate behaviors can often seem like your child trying to get their way and it can be difficult figuring out the difference between a tantrum and a meltdown. If you notice your child demonstrating difficult behaviors consistently in certain situations, such as every time you go to the mall or when it’s time for them to brush their teeth, then sensory overload may be responsible for the outbursts.
Avoiding Sensory Overload
The best way to help your child fight sensory overload is to start by paying attention to patterns. Take note of the factors that are present and the situations your child is in when they begin to act out. If your child has meltdowns at the store, try putting them in charge of the grocery list so they have something to keep their focus on. If they still act out, it’s a sign that perhaps it isn’t the bright light or signs in the store that is upsetting them, but the sounds. You can apply this sort of process of elimination in every situation where you suspect sensory overload is happening.
If your child gets upset at the sounds at certain places, try investing in some noise canceling headphones. Switch to non-scented soaps and shampoos for bath time and try putting on soft, ambient music on in order to drown out the echoes from the tub. When you are able to recognize sensory overload, you can start to be proactive at finding practical strategies to mitigate the distressing stimuli. Of course, you should also be aware of your child’s limits and, for now, avoid situations or places where you have found it impractical to soften distressing stimuli. Creating a quiet space for your child, where they can practice mindfulness, read, or do other quiet activities, will help them calm down if they start to build up anxiety from sensory overload.
SPD can be challenging for both children and parents, but recognizing when sensory overload happens and using practical strategies can go a long way helping your child see improvement.
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