How to help your child with sensory overload

What is sensory overload?

Sensory overload is when you’re experiencing too much input from your five senses (sight, smell, touch, taste, hearing). This can also be described as being highly sensitive or hyper-sensitive to the environment. Your brain has a difficult time processing the amount of information it is receiving. Anyone can experience sensory overload, but it is most common in children and especially children with autism, sensory processing disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and fibromyalgia.

What are the symptoms and triggers of sensory overload?

Recognizing signs of sensory overload in children can oftentimes be difficult to recognize. Not every child will show every symptom of sensory overload. The signs and symptoms are specific to each individual child. However, there are several ways you can identify if your child is experiencing or about to experience a sensory overload. A few symptoms may include:

  • Difficulty focusing
  • Escaping or running away from situations, people or places
  • Increased irritability
  • Restlessness or signs of discomfort
  • Placing hands over ears or eyes
  • Overly excited
  • Shows signs of stress or anxiety about situations or surroundings
  • Higher than normal levels of sensitivity to the five senses (touch, smell, taste, etc.)

There are also several triggers that may cause a sensory overload to occur. For example:

  • Strong smells (perfumes/colognes, cleaning supplies, etc.)
  • Persistent sounds (dogs barking, mowing of a lawn mower, construction noises, traffic noises, etc.)
  • Flickering of lights 
  • Foods or materials that have a specific texture (this will vary depending on the person)

How can you help your child with sensory overload?

When it comes to children experiencing a sensory overload, there are several ways a parent, guardian or caregiver can help support their child: 

  • Teach your child meditation and ways to self-calm 
  • Create an exit-strategy when a sensory overload occurs
  • Give your child a sensory toy
  • Make sure there is time for physical activity/exercise
  • Add a pet to the family
  • Give your child a weighted vest or wrap them up in a blanket
  • Purchase an outdoor playset or trampoline

Here are also some long-term strategies and ideas to keep in mind:

  • Keep documentation of specific signs, symptoms and other triggers
  • Inform others who are in contact with your child to be aware of the triggers and reduce the sensory inputs that are creating the over-stimulation
  • Help create a safe space for your child to escape the sensory overload
  • Brainstorm with friends, teachers, caregivers, and others who know more information about sensory overload, in order to gain support 
  • Make sure your child takes regular breaks and gets enough sleep
  • Make sure your child is eating a well-balanced diet and staying hydrated 
  • Establish a form of communication with your child, in order for them to communicate to you what is happening and how you can help
  • When the sensory overload is happening, make sure your child is being heard and that what they are experiencing is valid, normal and temporary