Autism & Sensory Overload

One of the issues parents find challenging to navigate with autism is sensory overload.  Because the Autism Spectrum affects how a person process information, and human beings are generally designed to experience life using the five senses – sensory overload can come like a semi barreling down a mountainside pass.  No brakes. On ice.

Sensory overload is not something that can be controlled.  It cannot always be predicted.  It cannot always be prevented.

and it can often lead to a Meltdown.

Meltdowns are often seen by others as a discipline problem.  They can manifest themselves differently in different kids, but can commonly be seen as a “fit” or “temper tantrum”.

Kids with impulse issues (think ADHD) can often resort to temper tantrums to get what they want.  Their end goal is to get a “yes” when they hear a “no”.  It is a manipulative ploy that most kids resort to until they learn better behavior, and sometimes even when they know better…

A sensory meltdown is very different.  And it can be scary and frustrating and exhausting for everyone involved.  A sensory meltdown can occur when someone is feeling overwhelmed.

By loud noises.  

By bright colors.  

By itchy or uncomfortable clothing.  

By socks with seams.  

By broccoli.

What’s the difference between a tantrum and a sensory meltdown?

With a tantrum, the child can end the screaming, crying, yelling fit at will.  It is based on getting what the child wants.  A sensory meltdown generally ends when the child is too exhausted to keep screaming, crying, yelling, thrashing, throwing things, fighting – or by the introduction of a change in sensory input.

“what does that mean” you ask?

Go to Pinterest and type in “sensory activity” and see all the pins that come up.

Introducing a change in sensory input can mean going to a quieter, dimly lit room.  It can mean taking off those darn socks (and throwing them away!) and going barefoot.  It can mean providing a stress ball or a sensory bottle to shift focus away from the irritant.  It can mean diffusing essential oils, using a weighted blanket or massage, playing soft music or sitting in a closet.

It means that a caregiver needs to understand the difference between a struggle of the will and a sensory overload – and be able to respond appropriately to each.  It has not been easy for me to identify the difference, and I have had to do some personal research and observation in order to differentiate between a manipulative ploy and a sensory overload in my own child.  So my next post will provide resources for caregivers who want to add to their arsenal of tools for responding to sensory overload!