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Navigating Sensory Overload: 4 Practical Strategies for Autism and ADHD

Updated: Nov 14, 2023

Navigating the world can be overwhelming for anyone, but for those with autism and ADHD, sensory overload can make it even more challenging. From loud noises to bright lights and strong smells, everyday experiences can trigger a range of reactions, leading to anxiety, frustration, and even meltdowns. If you have a child with sensory issues, you know all too well what we're talking about.

Luckily, there are some practical strategies that can help individuals with autism and ADHD manage their sensory overload and thrive in their daily lives. Whether it's creating a sensory-friendly environment, using weighted blankets, or practicing mindfulness techniques, there are many ways to ease the sensory overload and find a sense of calm.

In today's post, we'll explore some of these strategies and offer practical advice for navigating sensory overload for those with autism and ADHD. So, let's dive in and discover how to make the world a more manageable place for our loved ones who experience sensory overload.

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Understanding Sensory Overload

Sensory overload occurs when an individual experiences an overwhelming amount of sensory information that their brain cannot process effectively. This can cause a range of physical, emotional, and behavioral responses, depending on the individual's sensory processing abilities. Sensory overload can be triggered by any of the senses, including sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell.

For kids and adults with autism and ADHD, sensory overload can be a common occurrence due to their unique sensory processing differences. They may experience hypersensitivity to certain sensory stimuli, such as loud noises or bright lights, or hyposensitivity, where they may not register certain sensory information, such as pain or temperature changes.

It's important to note that sensory overload can also occur in individuals without autism or ADHD, such as those with anxiety or PTSD. Regardless of the cause, sensory overload can be a distressing experience that can impact an individual's ability to function and engage in daily activities.

A little girl playing alongside another girl on a rug

Types of Sensory Overload

There are many different types of sensory overload that an individual may experience. Some common examples include:

  • Auditory overload: This occurs when an individual is bombarded with loud or unexpected noises, such as a fire alarm or a car horn.

  • Visual overload: This occurs when an individual is exposed to bright or flashing lights, crowded spaces, or moving objects.

  • Tactile overload: This occurs when an individual is overwhelmed by touch sensations, such as certain fabrics or textures, or physical contact.

  • Olfactory overload: This occurs when an individual is exposed to strong or unpleasant smells, such as cigarette smoke or cleaning products.

  • Gustatory overload: This occurs when an individual is overwhelmed by certain tastes or textures, such as spicy or crunchy foods.

It's important to recognize the specific types of sensory overload that an individual may experience in order to develop effective strategies for managing their sensory needs.

Sensory Overload in Autism and ADHD

Sensory overload is a common experience for individuals with autism and ADHD. In fact, it's estimated that up to 90% of individuals with autism experience sensory processing differences, while up to 70% of individuals with ADHD experience sensory hypersensitivity.

For individuals with autism, sensory overload can be a particularly challenging experience due to their difficulties with social communication and interaction. They may struggle to express their sensory needs and may become overwhelmed in social situations that involve multiple sensory inputs, such as a crowded shopping mall or a noisy classroom.

For individuals with ADHD, sensory overload can also impact their ability to focus and regulate their emotions. They may become easily distracted or irritable in response to sensory stimuli, such as a flickering light or a strong smell.

Symptoms of Sensory Overload

The symptoms of sensory overload can vary depending on the individual and the specific type of sensory input that triggers their response. Some common symptoms may include:

  • Physical symptoms, such as headaches, nausea, or dizziness

  • Emotional symptoms, such as anxiety, frustration, or irritability

  • Behavioral symptoms, such as avoidance, withdrawal, or aggression

  • Cognitive symptoms, such as difficulty concentrating or processing information

Along with recognizing the specific types of sensory overload that affect your child, it's important to be aware of their particular symptoms of sensory overload in order to develop effective strategies for managing their individual sensory needs.

A male instructor teaching kids while sitting on bouncy balls

Strategies for Managing Sensory Overload

Fortunately, there are many strategies that can help individuals with autism and ADHD manage their sensory overload and find a sense of calm. Here are some effective strategies to consider:

Sensory Diets

A sensory diet is a personalized plan that provides an individual with the sensory input they need to regulate their nervous system and reduce sensory overload. This may include activities that provide calming or stimulating sensory input, such as deep pressure massage, swinging, or chewing on a sensory toy.

A sensory diet should be developed in collaboration with a sensory integration therapist (most often an occupational therapist with sensory integration training) or other qualified healthcare professional who can assess the individual's sensory needs and develop a tailored plan.

Sensory-Friendly Environments

Creating a sensory-friendly environment can also help individuals with autism and ADHD manage their sensory overload. This may involve reducing the amount of sensory input in the environment, such as turning off bright lights or playing calming music, or providing sensory-friendly equipment, such as noise-cancelling headphones or fidget toys.

In addition, it can be helpful to establish a consistent routine and structure in the individual's daily life to reduce the unpredictability of sensory input and provide a sense of familiarity and control.

Sensory Tools and Equipment

There are many tools and equipment available that can help individuals with autism and ADHD manage their sensory needs. These may include weighted blankets, compression vests, or sensory toys.

Weighted blankets, for example, provide deep pressure input that can help calm the nervous system and reduce anxiety. We love this convenient and reasonably priced weighted lap blankets for kids and adults alike.

Compression vests like this one provide similar benefits by applying pressure to the body.

Sensory toys or handheld fidget objects like these provide a variety of textures and sensations that can help regulate the individual's sensory system.

Sensory Integration Therapy

Sensory integration therapy is a type of therapy that aims to improve an individual's ability to process sensory information and regulate their nervous system. This may involve engaging in activities that provide specific types of sensory input, such as swinging, jumping, or playing with sensory toys.

Sensory integration therapy should be provided by a qualified healthcare professional such as an occupational therapist who specializes in sensory processing differences and can develop a tailored plan for your child.

Living with Sensory Overload

Managing sensory overload can be a challenging experience for individuals with autism and ADHD, but with the right strategies and support, they can learn to navigate the world in a way that works for them.

By understanding the types of sensory overload, recognizing the symptoms, and implementing effective strategies, you can help your child with autism or ADHD find a sense of calm and reduce their anxiety and frustration. Whether it's through sensory diets, sensory-friendly environments, sensory tools and equipment, or sensory integration therapy, there are many options available to help individuals with sensory processing differences thrive in their daily lives.

More Sensory-Friendly Indoor Equipment That We Love:

Kids inside of a bouncy house

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All blog content shared through HealthSmart! Kids is for informational purposes only and not to be construed as medical advice. Always talk with your qualified health care provider for managing your health care needs.

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