Sensory overloaded = too much information

Sensory overload is a term which describes the experience an individual with sensory differences may have when they receive too much sensory information.  The brain is unable to process all of the information effectively.  It becomes overloaded. The behaviour response will vary but it usually triggers either a fight, flight or freeze response.  In this post we will explore:

  • Why sensory overload occurs

  • What sensory overload might look like

  • How you can help individuals experiencing sensory overload.

child with hands up to head and mother trying to comfort

Sensory overloaded = too much information

Sensory overload is a term which describes the experience an individual with sensory differences may have when they receive too much sensory information.  The brain is unable to process all of the information effectively.  It becomes overloaded. The behaviour response will vary but it usually triggers either a fight, flight or freeze response.  In this post we will explore

  • Why sensory overload occurs

  • What sensory overload might look like

  • How you can help individuals experiencing sensory overload.

What does sensory overload look like?

Sensory overload can occur when a student’s brain has had so much sensory input that it cannot process any more.  This can lead to a meltdown, the child trying to remove themselves from the situation or may result in shut down.  Otherwise known as a fight, flight or freeze response.  This is the brain’s way of coping with the excess information it can’t process.

Sensory overload and autism

Sensory overload is frequently reported by those with autism.  This video from the National Autism Society shows just how much information we process day to day.  The first example is going out with friends.  The second is at a job interview.

washing machine door

Sensory overload and the washing machine

A washing machine can be a good example to demonstrate the impact of overload.  If too many clothes are put into the machine, it doesn’t work as well.  It doesn’t clean the clothing as well.  Sometimes it may stop mid-cycle. New machines might not even start if there’s too much weight.  The overloaded washing machine can’t do its job properly.  It’s the same when the brain is overloaded.  However, instead of too much clothing, the brain has received too much sensory information.

Some signs of sensory overload

Signs of sensory overload are different for every pupil.  Some indicators can include:

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.

girl wearing ear defenders and playing with toys text auditory sensitivity

Jessica’s story

The sense that leads to sensory overload for Jessica is sound.  She is very sensitive to extra noise in the environment.  In the past she has run away from drums as they are just too loud.  Or, she will put her hands up over her ears.  Sometimes, she will start to make sounds herself to try to block out the noises.  Wearing headphones has been a big help when she is in noisier environments.  Her parents and teachers also only ask one question at a time and give her longer to respond.

Sensory overload – how to help in the moment

Here are some ideas you can use to help to support individuals in the moment if they are experiencing sensory overload.

One of the most helpful things to remember when an individual is experiencing sensory overload is to reduce or remove the inputs that are causing the overload.  Also, make sure you stop talking as well!

How you can help individuals to avoid sensory overload?

Here are some other ideas to consider throughout the week and day to help the individuals to avoid overload.

In summary

Overall, it is important to be aware of the triggers that might lead to sensory overload.  And, the supports that you can put in place to help the individual to avoid overload.  These will be different for every individual.

Where to next?

If you would like to read more about different sensory supports click here.

If you would to learn more about sensory processing and autism we recommend this article.

To learn even more about the senses and how to support sensory processing we recommend our online training.

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