A Modern Day Fairy Tale: Autism and Sensory Overload

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Autism and Sensory Overload

Christmas is a wonderful and exciting time for all of us...especially the children! There is so much magic and excitement all around. The holiday lights. The bustle of the mall. The anticipation of gifts. The traveling home for the holidays. It can be a wonderful thing, but it can also be quite overwhelming as well. This is especially true for those with Autism.

While we had a mostly great visit with our family over the holidays this year, Shaun also had a very difficult time. On top of the usual craziness of Christmas, Shaun had also already been out of routine for over a week due to being sick the week before his official break began. This alone would have been a lot to take but on top of even all that he had to deal with some major sensory overload.

So what is sensory overload?

You can read a pretty good summary on Wikipedia here...but to sum it up it occurs when one or more of the senses is overstimulated, often associated with Autism and/or Sensory Processing Disorder. Symptoms can include covering ears, being easily irritated, shutting down/distancing from others, poor eye contact, getting overexcited, being overly sensitive to sounds, lights or touch, sleeplessness, angry outbursts..the list goes on!

Imagine being in a super crowded, super loud room. So loud you cannot hear yourself think. Chances are you probably won't be able to tolerate it for too long, right? Now imagine this is never-ending. For some with Autism this is their normal. Where we hear only the dominate sounds in a room they may hear every little sound. Or feel or see things differently than you or I would. It's not that they have supersonic hearing or vision, it's just that where our brains normally filter out the background noises their bodies struggle with this. The result- meltdowns, irritability and even aggression. It is not a matter of discipline or that the child is a 'bad kid'  They are simply overwhelmed and don't know how to handle it all.

So what can you do when in a situation where you find yourself dealing with a child experiencing sensory overload? Reduce the noise if possible, give them their space and most importantly- BE UNDERSTANDING!!

When you see a child having a meltdown in the middle of a crowded mall, resist the urge to pass judgement. Don't assume the child is not being disciplined appropriately and please do not suggest that a spanking would solve the problem. I can assure you that my child does receive discipline but a spanking will most certainly not cure his Autism and in this case will only make matters worse. Us parents are doing the best we can in that moment and while we appreciate your support and understanding, we do not appreciate the judgement.

Do you have a child or loved one in your life that deals with sensory overload? What tricks have you learned to help them out? Any tips to pass along to those who have never been there?


  1. I completely understand, my 6yr old has SPD, dyspraxia and suspected autism and he deals with sensory overloads every day. I wish more people understood and didn't just judge.

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