What is sensory overload?

Sensory overload is also known as sensory overstimulation; it occurs when sensory experiences from the environment are too great for an individual’s nervous system to successfully process or make meaning from the sensory experience. A common example of sensory overload is a carnival/fair including the smell of barn animals and food, sound of other screaming children, amusement rides, and buzzers from games, car engines revving, touch stimuli from bumping into people within a crowd, the visual input of fast paced movement including blinking lights, fast moving rides, people and cars, etc. In this example of sensory overload, there is an abundance of sensory experiences entering the carnival goers nervous system all at once, which commonly leads to shut down, tantrums, or other negative behaviors that are associated by an overwhelmed nervous system (or sensory overload) that can not efficiently process the smell, sound, taste, touch, sight, and movement of the environment all at once.

When a child shows signs and symptoms of sensory overload more frequently and intensely than others, they may have sensory defensiveness.

How do I know if my child has sensory overload?

The symptoms of sensory overload can vary greatly in each child. A few symptoms include:

• Tantrums for no apparent reason.

• Irritability.

• “Shutting down” by refusing to participate in activities or interact with others.

• Avoids touching or being touched by objects and people.

• Gets overexcited with too much to look at.

• Covers eyes around bright light. Sensory Overload

• Has poor eye contact.

• Covers ears to close out sounds or voices. Complains about noises, such as vacuum cleaners, that do not bother others.

• Inability to focus on an activity.

• Jumps from one activity to another, never fully being able to complete a task.

• Irritation from shoes, socks, tags, or different textures.

• Over-sensitivity to touch, movement, sights, or sounds.

• Difficulty with social interactions.

• Unusually high or low activity level.

How can I help if my child has sensory overload?

Sensory integrative strategies are commonly used to address a child experiencing sensory overload. Sensory experiences are introduced slowly and gradually so the child does not react negatively to the introduction of the stimulus. It is important to communicate safety and comfort to the child during the introduction of these stimuli so he does not feel threatened by these therapeutic experiences.

Our approach to sensory overload at North Shore Pediatric Therapy

At North Shore Pediatric Therapy, our therapists work with children who experience sensory overload while providing a rich sensory environment, which meets their specific needs. Occupational therapy will accommodate your child’s needs in a safe and secure environment, and we will work to improve their sensory processing both in our facility and in their every day life.