One of the questions I commonly get from other parents is “how do I stop sensory overload from turning into a sensory meltdown?”
You know the old Benjamin Franklin quote “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”? Well, good old Ben knew what he was talking about!
When it comes to sensory overload, prevention is key. Getting ahead of it or preventing it from building up in the first place is so much easier than trying to play catch up when the scales have already been tipped into overload.
Have you ever been fine and then suddenly felt like everything was just too much? There’s too much talking, too much noise, the music is too loud.
Even I have felt sensory overload on occasion. When we go on road trips with the kids (that’s two adults and a lot of children in a cramped space!), I sometimes hit a point where it’s all just too much. The sensory stimuli builds up (smells, sounds, sights, touch, vestibular input from the movement of the vehicle, proprioceptive input from the seatbelt, interoceptive input at being hungry or tired) until I can’t take one more minute of it.
Usually, if we pull over somewhere and I step outside for a few minutes and eat something so that I’m not hungry anymore, I can regulate myself again. Maybe you can relate.
It’s not uncommon for people to experience sensory overload even if they don’t have normally sensory issues.
Being overtired, stressed, or even hungry can make you more susceptible for sensory overload. These factors are especially important to consider when it comes to kids.
Those with autism, anxiety, PTSD, and Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) are more prone to experiencing sensory overload. Sensory overload can also occur during migraines.
Once it begins, those suffering from it feel as though their senses are heightened. They are hyperaware of every sound, sight, smell, touch, and feeling. Sensory overload can often look like a panic attack. It is even more unpleasant for the person experiencing it as it is for those around them.
Stop sensory overload before it starts:
- Choose neutral or calming paint colours.
- Avoid patterned wallpaper or busy carpets.
- Keep your home or classroom decor simple and minimalistic.
- Lower the noise level.
- Consider background noise such as overhead ceiling fans, outside noise coming in through an open window, and humming fluorescent lights.
- Avoid scented candles, perfumes, air fresheners, and reduce cooking smells when possible.
- Use a dimmer switch to lower lighting or close blinds.
- Have the child (or adult) wear sunglasses in bright sunlight.
- Use noise cancelling headphones in places where sound can’t be reduced.
- Plan days so that only one busy event is happening on a single day and book days of rest in between.
- Avoid places with crowds and a lot of sensory stimuli.
- Plan ahead somewhere (a room or vehicle – depending on their age) the child can go to if they begin to feel overwhelmed. You can also use a designated signal word that they can use to indicate to you that they need to leave.
- Provide regular sensory breaks throughout the day.
- If you are in an environment with a lot of stimuli, have the person take regular breaks to do deep breathing or “get some air”.
- Maintain a regular routine, particularly for bedtimes and mealtimes.
- Provide regular snacks and plenty of water.
Recognize the Signs of Sensory Processing Overload:
Being able to recognize the signs of sensory overload can help you to take action before it turns into a full blown sensory meltdown. My friend Heather and I created a free cheatsheet to help you see the signs. You can read more about the signs of sensory overload here or get your own copy of the cheatsheet to print off and keep as a reminder here.
Stop sensory overload from leading to a meltdown:
- Even when you’ve done what you can to prevent sensory overload, it can still happen. Catch it early. This is key.
- As soon as you recognize signs of sensory overload, remove the child or person from the situation. Avoid touching them as this will only heighten their overload. If it’s a small child and you need to carry them or lead them by the hand, give them a verbal warning in a soft, calm voice beforehand.
- Don’t ask open ended questions. Keep things very quiet. Allow them to put a hoodie or blanket over their eyes if they wish. Provide noise cancelling headphones if you have them.
- Give them space and time.
- If you need to drive home, it is sometimes best to have a quiet time in the vehicle first as the motion of the drive will give vestibular input and could cause motion sickness once they are already experiencing sensory overload. (We’ve learned that one the hard way!)
- Coach your child through some calm down breathing.
- Wordlessly offer a comfort object such as a special blanket or stuffed animal if they want it.
When sensory overload leads to a sensory meltdown:
If you are unable to prevent sensory overload from turning into a sensory meltdown, remain calm. The tips here: How to Respond to a Sensory Meltdown will provide you with the tools you need to be able to help your child to regain control.
You likely won’t be able to prevent every sensory meltdown, but you will be able to curb most of them once you learn to recognize the things that create sensory overload for your child. You’ll have to play detective for awhile, looking for what seems to be most difficult for them. In time, you will recognize their sensory triggers and be able to stop meltdowns before they start.
Some other articles you may find helpful:
Sensory MeltdownsCalming Your Child’s Fight, Flight, or Freeze Response