Understanding Sensory Overload & Meltdowns

 Sensory overloadoccurs when one or more of the body’s senses experiences over-stimulation from the environment. Many environmental elements impact an individual. Examples of these elements are bright lights, crowding, noise, mass media, technology, and the explosive growth of information. A child may present with some difficulty focusing attention and may show hyperactive behaviors. As a result of the sensory overload, there may be unwanted behaviors such as hitting, biting, screaming, and head banging which is the child’s way of communicating frustration and confusion. Poor eye contact is also widespread which allows the child to reduce the sensory input. Rhythmical self-stimulation activities such as rocking, spinning, and flapping hands/fingers in front eyes are standard as well. These behaviors indicate a child’s attempt to provide some rhythmical input to the nervous system to deal with the overload. Most often, the child shows more appropriate responses in situations where the environment is calm and relaxed. This guideline may not apply to all children since each child is different and has different needs, but by knowing and understanding the signs of sensory overload and following these steps below can be helpful to the individual.

 12 Signs of sensory overload:

  • Loss of balance/coordination
  • Skin flushes/goes pale
  • Child is verbalizing STOP
  • Child steadfastly refuses activity
  • Racing heart beat
  • Hysteria/Crying
  • Stomach distress/Cramps/Nausea/Vomiting
  • Profuse sweating
  • Child becomes agitated or angry
  • Child may began repeating (Echolalic)
  • Stimming occurs
  • Child lashes out

What to do to help: 

  1. Stay Calm.
  2. Turn down/off any bright lights. Eliminating all sources of noise around him/her, etc might be helpful.
  3. Move child only if they’re in an unsafe place. An example of a safe place would be the child’s bed or bedroom. If the meltdown is occurring in a unfamiliar environment do you best to find a safe place or sensory friendly environment for your child.
  4. Remain quiet. Any interaction is likely to make things worse. Interacting under the best of circumstances is a sensory and cognitive over load and they may feel overwhelmed enough. (Any interaction at all can feel like a demand that one has to “perform” which can make things worse… especially combined with touch and everything else.) 
  5. Some children may respond well to joint compression’s during behavior episodes.
  6. Use soft-object barriers like pillows when necessary to prevent injury, without restraining.
  7. You can sit near them while they go through the meltdown, but don’t touch him/her unless they have been indicated that they want to be touched.
  8. After a meltdown, and when your child has been calm for more than (5 minutes) you may want to offer them water, hugs, or their favorite items (blanket, doll, toy, ect.

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