Sensory Overload in Autism

Since every child with autism is unique, it’s imperative that you tune in to the specific needs of your child. Although autism is a complex disorder and each child displays their own set of symptoms, sensory overload is common. When left unaddressed, this can significantly impact a child’s quality of life.

Sensory issues often go hand-in-hand with autism and can be expressed as hyper-sensitivities (being over-responsive) or hypo-sensitivities (being under-responsive). These sensitivities will be associated with a wide array of stimuli, ranging from sights and sounds to smells and tastes. For example, many children on the spectrum experience a hypersensitivity to bright lights. Other children may find the sensation of touch incredibly uncomfortable. Again, each individual is unique, not only in terms of their core symptoms but also their response to various stimuli.

If your child is displaying signs of sensory overload, know that you are not alone. This is incredibly common within the autism community and support is available! If you’re ready to take the next step to help your child, here’s what you need to know.

What Is Sensory Overload?

Sensory overload is directed to your five senses; hearing, smell, touch, sight, and taste. These all at once take in more information at a time than your brain can process. At times of sensory overload your brain is overwhelmed by all this input. Your brain enters into fight, flight, or freeze mode in response to what feels like a crisis, which makes you feel unsafe and overwhelmed.

Sensory symptoms are complex behavioral reactions to one’s sensory environment. Sensory overload occurs when you get more input from your senses than your brain is able to process. Although anyone can experience sensory overload, this condition is most commonly associated with autism, PTSD, sensory processing disorder, and fibromyalgia.

While a loud TV or crowded room can cause a sensory overload for anyone, overload is much more intense and harder to deal with among children living with sensory processing issues and autism. For example, many everyday situations that you may not even be aware of can trigger children with autism. This can result in intense feelings of discomfort and meltdowns.

The goal is to first understand your child’s experiences so that you can effectively intervene.

Sensitivity Differences in Autism — Sensory Overload

Among children with autism, sensory symptoms are broken down into hyper-responsiveness or hypo-responsiveness. To define hypersensitivity in autism or hyposensitivity in autism:

  • Hypersensitivity in autism — This involves overreactions to one’s sensory environment (i.e., a child feeling the need to cover their ears when someone sings).
  • Hyposensitivity in autism — This involves behaviors that are under-reactions to one’s environment (i.e., not responding to a loud sound).

Based on the available research, it is estimated that the prevalence of sensory symptoms among children and adults with autism is between 69% and 93%. That is why sensory overload was added as a diagnostic criterion of autism spectrum disorder.

While children with autism may experience sensory overload in relation to the five core senses (taste, touch, hearing, sight, and smell), they may also overreact or underreact to two additional senses: the proprioceptive and vestibular senses. These senses affect an individual’s motor skills, balance, and body awareness.

The Relationship Between Autism and Sensory Sensitivity

Researchers found that the heritable factors related to autism also overlap with those that influence abnormal sensory responses. This study, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, drew data from more than 12,000 twins. The findings of this study support the idea that sensory sensitivities are an underlying feature of autism. It concluded that approximately 85% of the overlap between sensory sensitivities and autism can be explained by genetic variables.

Although this link is preliminary, previous research shows that parents and siblings of individuals with autism often share milder versions of their sensitivities, suggesting that sensory sensitivities may run in families. This study found that 98% of mothers of children with autism showcase unusual responses to sensory stimuli, including sound, light, and touch.

How to Accommodate for Sensory Overload

Each child with autism is unique, which includes their personal sensitivities. To assist your child, you need to remain aware of their unique sensitivities so that you can accommodate accordingly.

Here are some examples of ways you can accommodate for hypersensitivities:

  • Dim lights.
  • Install incandescent lighting instead of fluorescent.
  • Provide earplugs or headphones when entering noisy environments.
  • Eliminate the use of strongly scented products (e.g., air fresheners, perfumes).
  • Provide food options and clothing that accommodates personal sensitivities (e.g., remaining mindful of the temperature or texture of food, scratchy fabrics, etc.).
  • Ask permission before touching (e.g. giving your child a hug).

Here are some examples of ways you can accommodate for hyposensitivities:

  • Provide visual support if your child struggles to process spoken information/directions.
  • Offer stronger-tasting or textured foods.
  • Offer toys that are sensory-stimulating (e.g., fidgets), as well as opportunities to participate in stimulating activities.
  • Use a weighted blanket.

The best way to ensure your child avoids sensory overload is to understand their triggers. If your child does not verbalize these triggers, look for clues (e.g., crying, avoiding certain places, shutting their eyes or covering their ears, etc.).

Although you cannot avoid certain situations, you can help your child better prepare for what may happen next. You can also try various treatment options, including the development of a sensory diet. A therapist can design a sensory diet that’s tailored to your child’s individual needs.

At Carmen B. Pingree Autism Center of Learning, we provide treatment methods that are based on the latest scientific methods. Our goal is to provide better care in order to create better outcomes. Have questions? Want to apply? If so, please contact us today!