• Autism Help UK

What Is Sensory Overload Anxiety?

Updated: Mar 25, 2021

Sensory overload is when one or more of the five senses is overwhelmed. This is common in autistic people and can cause anxiety and stress as well as other issues. Here is an explanation of what sensory overload is, the effects of it, and tips to help.



What Is Sensory Overload?

Sensory overload is when one or more of the five senses is overwhelmed. This means that the brain is receiving lots of information at once and cannot process it properly which can intensify certain senses. This can cause discomfort and irritability, as well as making some every day situations stressful.


Some challenges can include struggles with:

  • sight- e.g. bright lights or flickering lights.

  • taste- e.g. certain strong flavours.

  • hearing- e.g. loud noises such as a fire alarm or noisy crowds.

  • smell- e.g. strong scents like perfumes.

  • touch- e.g. certain textures or someone touching you.

Causes of Sensory Overload

Sensory overload is usually caused by something in the environment, as everywhere you go there will be a sensory stimuli. As mentioned above, this could include flickering lights in a supermarket, a fire alarm at school, or a perfume stand at the mall. Whilst you may think nothing of these situations, they can be stressful and cause anxiety in autistic people.


Symptoms Of Sensory Overload

It can be hard to pinpoint the exact symptoms of sensory overload as they can be caused by something else. For example anxiety/fear could be caused by a stressful situation instead of sensory overload. However, these are some symptoms of sensory overload you can look out for. These symptoms can be displayed differently in adults and children.


Children:

  • Behaviour change- you may see that your child is more anxious or irritable. They may start to have outbursts when their senses are overwhelmed.

  • Trying to block out senses- your child may try to block out their senses by covering their eye, ears, nose, or face.

  • Refusing or leaving certain places- your child may refuse or run away from places where they experience sensory overload.

Adults:

  • Behaviour change- feeling stressed, overwhelmed, and irritated when senses are overwhelmed.

  • Getting angry and potentially have an outburst over loud or irritable noises, strong smells, bright lights, uncomfortable temperatures, fabrics (when their senses are overloaded).

  • Feeling anxious about going to places where senses are overwhelmed or fear of future sensory overload.

  • May feel like your out of control.

  • May seem more distracted.


What is Sensory Overload Anxiety?

Sensory overload can cause people to feel anxious. The reason for this is that sensory overload can cause discomfort, irritability and feel out of control. This can lead onto mental health issues including anxiety as you may begin to fear everyday situations or feel anxious over thoughts of places or potential future situations where you may feel sensory overload. Situations and places that can cause anxiety might be:

  • unknown situations and new experiences

  • unfamiliar places

  • meeting new people



The Concern

There will be places or situations in life where you can't control the environment around you, such as going to a shop or going on the bus. These places can be a nightmare for autistic people as their senses become overwhelmed by the noise, the smells, and the unfamiliar environment. However, the unknown and new experiences are bound to happen in life one way or another. So, here are a few tips to help with sensory overload.



Tips To Help

Here are a few tips to help reduce the chances of sensory overload.


1. Journal

When you visit places where you feel you/your child's senses are being overwhelmed, jot down:

  • where you are

  • the reaction (e.g. did they cover their ears, run away, ect.)

  • what you think caused the over sensory stimulation (e.g. loud noises at the park)

  • ^ you could also write whether you think the cause is recurring in that environment (e.g. such as a perfume stand smelling strong) or if it is just a one off event (e.g. a flickering light in a supermarket- which will be fixed)

By doing this, you can figure out which places to go and which places to avoid in the future.


2. Preparing & Sensory Kit

As you will not always be able to avoid sensory stimuli places, it is important to prepare your child by letting them know you are visiting that place again and what they may expect to happen. By doing this, you help reduce anxiety that can be cause by the unexpected.


As well as this. by jotting down the reactions, you can also figure out what you need to bring with you in case you visit those environments again. Some sensory items that may reduce sensory overload include:

  • Sound- Bring some noise cancelling headphones for children who struggle with auditory stimuli.

  • Smell- Teach your child to block out unfavourable smells with a handkerchief/tissue.

  • Sight- Give your child a pair of sunglasses to help block out bright lights.

3. Prioritise Comfortable Environments

You will discover, over time, places where you/your child doesn't have sensory overload. Make sure to jot these places down and visit them again. This is very beneficial for autistic children as it shows them that not all places will give them anxiety and there are places they can enjoy.


#SensoryOverload #Senses #FiveSenses

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