What causes sensory overload?
Sensory overload occurs because the brain has received too much information. There is a part of the brain called the amygdala which is responsible for directing information to where it needs to go. The amygdala is a bit like an air traffic controller. However, instead of directing planes, it directs sensations. All of the information the brain receives comes from the senses.
When sensory overload occurs, the amygdala struggles to prioritise and organise the information. It’s a bit like the air traffic controller trying to land three planes onto two runways at the same time. The air traffic controller would need to make some very quick decision to avoid a disaster. And they would be extremely stressed throughout.
During sensory overload, the complexity of sensory information is too much for the brain to process. This leads to a stress response. As already mentioned, the response will be different for different individuals.
Consider all of the sensations that might contribute to sensory overload
It is important to consider all of the sensory inputs that the individual is processing. The videos above give some good examples. People who experience sensory overload typically notice more information than others. And their brains may not ignore irrelevant sensory information as readily. This means they are already processing a lot more information from the environment.
If you talk, that is more information to process. When you change a plan, there is extra information to process. Think about what sensations are happening in the background. And, don’t forget they are also processing the internal inputs from their own body as well.
Remember sensory inputs are cumulative
Sensory inputs are cumulative. So, each builds on the next and the brain needs to process them all. Individuals with sensory sensitivities are typically the ones that experience overload and shutdown. This is because their brains have lower thresholds for the amount of sensory inputs they can tolerate.
It’s important to consider what the individual may have done before they arrived. It might have been a stressful trip to school because there were road works, so they had to take a different route. This will add to their sensory inputs.
So will any interactions the individual has had earlier on in the day. This might be that they had run out of their usual breakfast cereal. They may have had a disagreement with a friend on the playground. Or, the music class might have been really loud because they were practising drumming. All of these sensory inputs can add to sensory overload.