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Sensory overload and how we can help

Loud or echoey noise, bright or flickering lights, strong smells, too much clutter, all of these and more can affect children and young people with a hyper-sensitivity

Foto: [link]Alireza Attari[/link], Unsplash CC0.

Have you ever felt yourself becoming sensory overloaded? Perhaps even to the point where you have become sensory overwhelmed?

Perhaps you were in an environment that was just too loud, or too bright, or there were strong smells, or there were too many people, or a combination of several of these and others…

It is possible for many of us to become sensory overloaded, you may even recognise the triggers that affect you.

I was in a supermarket recently that, like they do, was playing music. Usually it doesn’t bother me, but this time the song they were playing (a rather loud, screechy, contemporary R&B song) affected me so much that I almost had to leave the shop. It just grated on my ears to the point that I couldn’t think about anything else and my head began spinning.

Sometimes I have a similar experience in coffee shops. I don’t like coffee, so I tend to order a tea or hot chocolate, and then retreat to a far corner away from the coffee machines belching out their foul fumes!

But when ordering my drink I am near to where the coffee machines are, and if I’m queuing behind someone who takes half and hour to describe the coffee they want to the barista (as they often seem to do…) then I can feel myself almost gagging with the coffee smell that is overwhelming me.

I’m sure you will have your own stories too; times when you’ve felt really uncomfortable in a place because it was affecting your senses.

Perhaps you have an over developed or ‘hyper-sensitive’ sense which is affected by too much input, or the sensory input arriving at all of your senses in one go is just too much.

The children and young people we journey with can be hyper-sensitive to certain sensory inputs as well, and this can also be related to any additional needs that they may have.

Loud or echoey noise, bright or flickering lights, strong smells, too much clutter, different textures, lots of people, all of these and more can affect children and young people with a hyper-sensitivity in one or more areas.

There are lesser known senses that children and young people can have hyper-sensitivity in as well, such as their vestibular (balance) sense.

A hyper-sensitive child or young person in this case may find sudden movement, or changes in direction, difficult, such as in a car, boat, or plane, causing motion sickness.

Here’s a video from the National Autistic Society which features a boy and his mum journeying through a shopping mall. The sensory input he is receiving, all at the same time, begins to overload and then overwhelm him..

And of course children and young people can have an under developed or ‘hypo-sensitive’ sensory response too, seeking sensory input in that area to compensate for their lack or low levels of sensory input.

To help children and young people with a sensory hyper-sensitivity there are simple things that we can do to reduce the sensory input they are receiving if it is not possible in the first instance to reduce the amount of sensory overload (e.g. turn the volume down, reduce the lighting, etc.):

Too loud/echoey: Ear defenders or noise reducing ear plugs

Too bright/flickery: Sunglasses or a sun visor

Strong smells: Open windows or place e.g. coffee machine by an extractor fan

Too much clutter: Have a tidy up, and try to avoid covering every wall surface with posters, artwork etc.

Motion sickness: Is it possible to travel by train (may be less likely to be a vestibular issue)

Coping strategies: Children/young people may also use their own coping strategies, such as stimming, or use of fidgets, which can also serve as a clue to adults that they are struggling.

Seeking their ideas for how best to support them is vitally important.

Keeping it consistent: Try to keep the programme consistent so reducing the stress and anxiety that unpredictability can add to sensory overload.

Children and young people are likely to have developed their own defence strategies to avoid sensory overload. This may include escaping from the source of the sensory overload by running out of the room.

Providing a calm sensory safe space for them to access at these times will be helpful.

They may also find themselves completely overwhelmed and distressed as a result of sensory overload and will need a quiet space to recover. Some stretching exercises, or a short walk, may help.

Deep breathing techniques, and deep pressure/massage therapy, can also help, but appropriate training and safeguarding systems should be in place for these.

If we don’t appropriately support children and young people with a sensory hyper-sensitivity, we not only leave them struggling this time, but create stress and anxiety about a repeat of their sensory overload next time; a double whammy!

With the right measures in place, children and young people with a sensory hyper-sensitivity can take part in activities that otherwise could be off-limits for them.

James loves using the shredder, but it is so loud! Wearing his ear defenders he is able to enjoy shredding without becoming overwhelmed.

Sometimes children with a hyper-sensitive (as well as hypo-sensitive) sense or senses may be diagnosed as having Sensory Processing Differences (sometimes called Sensory Processing Disorder).

SPD may affect as many as 1 in 10 children and young people (research results range widely), so it is likely to affect children and young people in most children’s and youth groups, schools, churches, uniformed organisations, etc.

Let’s do all we can to support them all.

Makes sense, doesn’t it?

Mark Arnold, Director of Additional Needs Ministry at Urban Saints. Arnold blogs at The Additional Needs Blogfather. This article was re-published with permission.




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