What is sensory overload? A phenomenon that can affect kids beyond those with obvious sensory issues, including kids with learning and attention issues. It can interfere with basic functioning, and possibly lead to distressing sensory meltdowns. Find out what you need to know.
So, what is sensory overload? You know those old sci fi shows where the robot or computer receives conflicting or incomprehensible information that “does not compute”? Causing it to malfunction, shut down, or explode? Sensory overload can sort of be like that. Your brain can’t process the information properly and reaches a point where it essentially shuts down, or stops functioning properly.
When this happens with your child, it can lead to distressing behavioral issues or intense tantrums that seem to blaze out of nowhere. Read on to figure out if this could be going on with your child and how to address it.
WHAT IS SENSORY OVERLOAD?
Sensory overload occurs when the magnitude of incoming sensory information exceeds the ability of the brain to process it.
Any adult or child can experience sensory overload in certain circumstances. But some kids are generally more prone to experiencing sensory overload. This includes kids with SPD or identified sensory issues, who already start off with some level of dysfunction in processing sensory input. And, it also includes kids with other primary issues such as autism and learning differences, as well as ADHD kids.
Kids may react to sensory overload in different ways. For some kids, their brain processing may get “stuck.” Like a broken record trapped in a loop. They can’t process the information already onboard or take on new info.
For other kids, sensory overload may lead to panicked flight. This could be physically running away. Or, it could manifest as other actions to shut out the world, like covering ears, closing eyes or making competing noises to drown out the surrounding sounds.
Left unchecked, sensory overload can lead to a sensory meltdown. At first, this looks a lot like a garden variety tantrum on the outside, but it is fundamentally different in nature. And, it can be extremely intense and distressing.
WARNING SIGNS/SYMPTOMS OF SENSORY OVERLOAD
Ideally, you would catch sensory overload before it completely interferes with your child’s ability to function, or leads to a distressing meltdown. Here are some clues you should look for.
Common Signs and Symptoms of Sensory Overload
- Abrupt mood changes
- Seemingly unprovoked crying
- Can’t respond to questions or participate in conversation
- Attempting to shut out sensory input by covering ears or face, shutting eyes or running away
- Acting agitated, increased fidgeting
- Extreme irritability or restlessness
- Saying the same thoughts or questions repeatedly
- Checked out demeanor and glassy eyes
- Complete inability to focus on anything that’s going on
If you observe these signs, take action.
Eliminate the trigger, change the environment, or move to a better situation.
Take some type of sensory break that is helpful for your child. (Find out more about potential activities to use for a sensory break in our post on creating a sensory diet.)
Look For Patterns
The warning signs of sensory overload could be something idiosyncratic to your child, so look for patterns.
For example, I now know that, when we are traveling, complaints of “itchiness” are a big red flag for my child. This kid generally enjoys traveling. But sometimes when we’re doing a lot of touring and walking around crowded attractions, it’s too much for him. And he’ll complain of being “itchy” all over.
I used to dig through my purse looking for lotion. But now I know that’s a warning sign that he’s getting overwhelmed. That tells me it’s time to slow down. Take a break. Move to a quiet location and/or go home.
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DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A SENSORY MELTDOWN AND A TEMPER TANTRUM
Sensory overload can lead to a sensory meltdown.
Despite outward appearances, meltdowns and tantrums are not actually the same thing. They originate from different sets of issues. And they require different strategies for preventing them, and for managing them when they occur.
The Temper Tantrum
The basic thing to keep in mind about a tantrum is that it contains some underlying kernel of voluntariness or willfulness. It’s a strategy, perhaps subsconscious, through which a child can potentially procure a desired outcome.
In a tantrum, a child will usually stop once he gets what he wants. Or, he’ll stop once its clear that the efforts are futile.
A tantruming child will often be acutely aware of what’s around him. He may track what reactions he’s receiving and he may adjust accordingly. For instance, following you around the house to make sure you’re paying attention.
And, the tantrum may include some element of actual demand or negotiation. Like wanting access to something that’s being denied. Or, delaying some action he doesn’t want to take.
The Sensory Meltdown
In contrast, a sensory meltdown is more like a mechanical breakdown. A wall gets hit. Everything stops working the way that it should.
Fussing and pleading with a child in meltdown mode has as much effect as fussing and pleading with your car that breaks down on the side of the road. It doesn’t really accomplish anything and just makes you more frustrated.
Unlike a tantrum, a meltdown does not end once a kid gets what he wants.
First, he may not actually want anything specific other than for the situation to be different. And, even when the sensory input is reduced or eliminated the meltdown may continue until it burns itself out. This could take a distressingly long period of time. Like 20 to 30 minutes or more.
From a parent’s perspective, this can be frustrating and scary. And it can be scary for your child as well.
And, unlike a tantrum, your child may be disconnected from what’s going on around him. He may be unable to process the words that you say to him. Almost like you’re speaking a foreign language.
Or, he may say things that don’t really have a relationship to what you are trying to communicate. Nothing you say seems to penetrate. And, he may keep repeating the same thing over and over.
During a meltdown, don’t try to actually communicate information. Not with words. Any communication should be conveyed through actions. Like back rubs or hugs or touch – if your child responds well to those types of overtures.
Meltdown in Legoland
Day 4 of a 5 day sprint through the wonders of greater Orlando. This should have been the highlight of our amusement park pilgrimage. My kid was an absolute Lego fiend. And when he learned we would be visiting the ultimate shrine to all things Lego, he almost seemed to bounce out of his skin with excitement.
We were only a few steps past the Legoland gate, when the rapid-fire questions began.
“So what are we going to see first?”
“Do we have time to see everything?”
“Can we stay to see everything?”
“But what are we going to see first?”
I didn’t really have answers to these questions. It had taken us longer to get there than expected due to traffic delays. We were there to have fun. So let’s just see what happened. Who needed an agenda?
My casual “Not sure. Let’s play it by ear,” was apparently the wrong answer. Shortly thereafter, I found myself sitting conspicuously on a bench only a few feet from the main entrance. My son stood defiantly next to me. Distraught and repeatedly wailing, “Tell me! Tell me!”. Refusing to sit. Sweating in the humidity. In full view of any and all passersby. And under the extremely concerned gaze of our travel companions.
TIPS FOR AVOIDING OVERLOAD AND MELTDOWNS
One of the best ways to avoid or reduce sensory overload is to know your child’s triggers. What are the things that tend make your child most uncomfortable?
For instance, a list of triggers could include bright lights, loud noises, or crowds. Avoid the ones you can. Forewarn and manage the ones you can’t.
Our trip to Legoland was several years before I ever heard about “sensory issues.”
Managing Sensory Overload Triggers
If I had that outing to do over again, with the benefit of more knowledge, I would have resisted the impulse to cram as much as possible into our trip.
In hindsight, trying to incorporate all 4 Disney parks, Universal Studios, Sea World and Legoland was overly ambitious by a wide margin. At least for our group it was. And, maybe I would have selected a less crowded week in the summer. Also, perhaps a week with little less heat and humidity.
And, I now more fully appreciate that my child does not like to “wing it.” Some research suggests that there’s a relationship between sensory sensitivities and an intolerance for uncertainty. Whatever scope that umbrella might have, my kid definitely falls under it. He wants to know what comes next. Exactly. He and serendipity are not friends.
So, I also would have checked before hand on exactly what the different attractions were and layout of park. Then, reviewed the attractions and available activities with my child at home to decide which ones he definitely wanted to make sure to do. This is now our standard protocol for all trips to any amusement park.
Sensory Overload And Anxiety
Sometimes sensory issues and sensory overload come with lots of associated anxiety.
I suspect that anxiety played a large role in our Legoland incident. My inability to articulate a plan apparently sent the anxiety levels into overdrive.
Read more about the connection between sensory processing issues and anxiety. And, read how intolerance for uncertainty also relates to kids’ anxiety.
Sensory Overload And Screen Time
Now you may be thinking that too much screen time can lead to sensory overload. Turns out that may not exactly be the case.
Some new research from the University of Michigan suggests that kids with SPD, ADHD and autism may use media devices to help self-manage their sensory inputs. Under this “sensory curation” theory, some kids use media devices to construct temporary “environments within environments” to create a comfortable sensory space for themselves. These devices become tools to help maintain sensory regulation by simultaneously capturing and curbing sensory input.
Notably, this study doesn’t offer commentary on whether this can be a good thing or a bad thing. It simply notes that it can often be a source of family conflict.
TIPS FOR REMEDYING SENSORY OVERLOAD
The best strategy for addressing sensory overload in the moment is to reduce or eliminate the elements in the environment that are overly stimulating the senses. Retreating to a place that’s emitting less noise, fewer smells or whatever the case may be. This could be going to another room, a quiet corner, or retreating to the car.
With advance planning, you could have a calming spot in your home where your child knows he can safely retreat when feeling overwhelmed. Like a quiet corner, with low lighting, a large comfy bean bag chair, or rocking chair, and a weighted lap pad. (We have a very large oversized bean bag chair in our basement that’s provided a reliable retreat for the past few years.)
Once a meltdown is over, take time to process what happened and strategize about how things can be done differently in the future.
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