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Sensory Overload - What is it and How to Help

Is there a child in your class who becomes panicked, anxious or overwhelmed easily? Do certain sounds, smells, textures appear to trigger changes in behaviour? If you said yes, then that child may be experiencing sensory overload. This phenomenon is present in many learning and psychological conditions and can be quite debilitating if it goes unnoticed. By understanding what it is, how to spot it and what you can do to support children who are sensory sensitive, you will be able to create a classroom that is calm and safe for all.

What is Sensory Overload?

Sensory overload occurs when the brain receives more information from the senses (sight, sound, taste, touch and smell) than it can process and interpret at once. When this occurs, people tend to feel very overwhelmed and anxious. This video is a great representation of what sensory overload can feel like;

Everyone can feel a bit overwhelmed at some point in their life. However, for others who are more sensitive or have conditions where sensory sensitivity is more prevalent, it may be triggered more easily and more frequently.

What Causes Sensory Overload?

It's still not officially known what causes sensory overload. Some research suggests that it may be a biological predisposition. Given that we all experience stimuli differently, with some being more sensitive than others, it is helpful to think of there being a concept of a sensory spectrum.

Some neurological studies have found abnormalities in the brains' white matter in children with sensory processing disorder. White matter is composed of nerve fibres and is mainly responsible for the transferring of information within the brain. Likewise, for children and people who have experienced trauma, they may be more sensitive to certain types of sensory input (e.g loud crashes could trigger memories of abuse).

Conditions Related to Sensory Overload

Anyone can get a bit overwhelmed by sensory stimuli at times, but people with the following conditions may be more sensitive to stimuli and may be more likely to experience sensory overload;

What Does Sensory Overload Feel Like?

Sensory overload can cause a variety of physical and emotional reactions. It varies from person to person, but some common things that an individual may feel are;

  • Extreme irritability or agitation

  • Overwhelmed

  • Feeling of anxiety or fear

  • Disorientated

  • Unable to focus

  • Dizzy

  • Wanting everything to pause

What Does Sensory Overload Look Like?

Knowing when someone is in sensory meltdown is the first step to being able to support them and make adaptations to their environment to help them. Here are some things to look for;

  • Covering of the ears or eyes

  • Attempts to leave certain environments or situations

  • Unable to sit still

  • Crying

  • Outbursts of behaviour

  • Aggression or agitation

  • Meltdowns

When people are experiencing sensory overload, they often can't communicate their needs directly, so it is important to monitor behaviour and note any changes that indicate distress.

Supporting People In Sensory Overload

Knowing how to support someone who is experiencing sensory overload is key. If you have a child in class who experiences sensory overload often, it is worth consulting with an occupational therapist. An OT can assess the child's needs and create a sensory diet - a carefully designed set of activities that support a child's sensory needs and prevent sensory challenges.

Deescalation Techniques

If a child is in sensory overload, telling them to 'calm down' or 'get over it' is going to be the worst thing you can do. During this time, children need to feel supported and have their feelings validated. This is where you can use emotional coaching to validate the child's feelings.

Where possible, have some exit strategies devised so that the child has a safe way to leave a situation that is causing them distress. For example, if the classroom is too noisy, have a space that they can escape to in order to regulate themselves. Essentially, there needs to be space where they can dim the sensory input around them.

Prevention Techniques

Prevention is always better than the cure! Being able to prevent a sensory meltdown or sensory overload is always better than having to support a child after it has already happened.

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