Sensory overload occurs when the brain is unable to cope with the amount of incoming sensory information. This overwhelm may come from one or more of the sensory systems. It may be due to challenges arising from under/over-responsivity and/or challenges being able to filter out relevant from irrelevant sensory information. Other stressful events occurring within the child’s day (I.e. not knowing the answer to a question at school, having a fall out with a friend) contribute to feelings of overload. Meltdown may follow as a result of a single intense unpleasant sensory experience or as the cumulative result of multiple sensory and/or perceived stressful situations.
At times, when children have experienced sensory overload, they may present as being withdrawn and vacant. This is often referred to as ‘Shutdown’. They become withdrawn and vacant because their brain has become so overwhelmed that it can no longer respond to anything. Signs of shutdown may include a flushed face or pale appearance, sweating, increased breathing rate, feeling sick, agitation, closing of their eyes, sudden decrease in arousal (falling asleep), or their muscles may tense or become floppy.
Sensory overload looks different for every child (although, a child experiencing a full meltdown may look similar to another). For some children, you can visibly see that they are getting increasingly heightened until the point of meltdown. Others appear to go from calm to overload in a matter of seconds. Whilst, to some extent this is the case, other children are better at masking their dysregulation. We can aim to spot the subtle signs of dysregulation in our child and support them to recognise these signs too. This way they can put in place effective strategies before reaching a point of overload or meltdown.
This is not something that your child can learn overnight but instead something that we get better at with practice. Children with sensory processing differences can find it much more difficult than neurotypicals to detect when their body is feeling dysregulated.
What is helpful and unhelpful to your child whilst they are experiencing sensory overload will be specific to them. It also is likely to be specific to the situation or cause of sensory overload.
The activities below aim to help you open up a conversation about this. Some children will not have the awareness to be able to reflect in this way about specific episodes of sensory overload. If this is the case, it may be helpful for you (or another adult) to pay close attention to your child’s responses to the support offered. This will help you learn what does and doesn't work for them.
There are also some things that are generally helpful to consider when a child is experiencing sensory overload.
Picture Communication Cards
It can be difficult to talk about our feelings. It can be even more difficult in a stressful situation. Picture communication cards can be a useful tool for a child to communicate how they are feeling and what they need, when it is difficult to find the words. In the middle of a meltdown, it is unlikely that these cards will be effective, but the hope is that your child will, over time become confident and able to communicate these feelings and needs at an earlier point of dysregulation.
These communication cards can also be used discretely in places where your child may feel self-conscious or where it could be disruptive to the situation to say these things out loud. They can also be used by adults that care for your child to check in with them.
Sometimes a child may find it difficult to talk directly to an adult about the things that are bothering them (sensory or otherwise). The Bother Monster (like a worry monster) is based on the idea that by writing down (or drawing) the thing that is bothering you and feeding it to your monster, it can help you to move on from the bother. This approach also helps you to understand things that are going on for your child.
You could introduce Bother Monsters to the whole family, to encourage and normalise open communication about feelings “Has anyone got any bothers to feed our bother monster today?”. Talking about bothers or feelings in this way can feel less intense than talking about them directly.
Children's Occupational Therapists work with children from birth to 18 (or 19 if attending Complex Need schools). If your child or young person is under the Occupational Therapy teams, you can speak to them about any questions you may have.
If you think your child requires specialist support, please speak to their GP.
If you have any questions about your child or young person's general health or development, you can contact the Healthy Child Programme by calling Just One Number on 0300 300 0123 or texting Parentline on 07520 631590. Our opening hours are 8am-6pm Monday-Friday (excluding bank holidays) and 9am-1pm on Saturdays.
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