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Sensory overload: top tips to keep it at bay

autism sensory overload

It’s something that nearly all autistic people young and old experience. It can occur in all kinds of environments and during day or night. For many of us, sensory overload is the bane of our lives, coming when we need it the least or if too much is happening at once.

Sensory overload happens when one or more of the senses becomes over-stimulated to the point where the person experiencing it can’t cope. It’s quite common amongst autistic people and was recently added to the new criteria for diagnosing someone with autism.

Some of the most well-known causes of sensory overload include:

  • The light in a room being too bright – strip lights are a major culprit
  • Too much noise in the background
  • One particular noise being louder than others e.g. an ambulance siren
  • A scent being overpowering, such as bleach
  • Text on a page not being spaced out enough
  • Busy decor e.g. patterned wallpaper and carpets

Trying to prevent sensory overload might seem like an uphill task at the best of times, but there are a few ways in which you can minimise its effects. In this post, we’ll give you a few tips that you or your autistic children could follow.

Block out the sound

This is one of the easiest ways to keep excessive background noise from ruining your day. All you need for this is one of two things – a pair of noise-cancelling headphones or some ear defenders. The former can be a little on the pricey side – a top-of-the-range pair from Bose can set you back more than £200 – but cheaper alternatives can be found.

For those of you who don’t like listening to music, audio books or anything spoken word, ear defenders are a more practical way of blocking out sound. You can get your hands on a children’s pair for under £10 from Sensory Direct.

Darkened room

If you or an autistic friend/relative/loved one has become overloaded, there is a free fail-safe that usually works to return them to normality. Lying down in a darkened room with all the lights and electrical appliances turned off for a while doesn’t sound too therapeutic, but it is.

After a party, a long day at work, a hard day at school or a family trip, this can help to flush out some of the ill feeling that has built up as a result of sensory overload. It tends to work better when the nights are longer in autumn and winter, but dark curtains can help if needed.

Turn it up

If there are a few small noises that are bugging you or your child, such as the buzzing noise made by a fly, it might be worth covering it with another sound. Turning on the radio, a music streaming website or even the TV could create a more consistent, expected sound to cover something minor and nagging. This also works to mask any noise coming from outside the home or, if at work, your colleagues (if they’re all okay with it).

A different shade

If spending a lot of time looking at a computer screen, the multitude of colours, particularly bright ones, can see sensory overload gradually develop. To keep this at bay, it’s worth having some form of tinted overlay over the screen. It should come in a colour like blue, purple, pink or orange.

A couple of apps that can be installed onto a computer are f.lux and TintMy Screen. Both can add a coloured overlay that will help to protect your eyesight and stop you from having to fiddle with the brightness and contrast on screen!

Rose-tinted spectacles

Speaking of tinting, Irlen glasses are worth having to apply a tint to everyday life. Preferred by many an autistic child and adult, they take their name from Irlen Syndrome, a condition that affects the way someone processes visual information. Some autistic people also have Irlen Syndrome, while there is some crossover when it comes to the sensory and visual side of things.

Wearing a pair of glasses with tinted lenses can help to make everything appear less sharp, thereby reducing the likelihood of sensory overload striking. Irlen glasses can help to make it easier to read, say, black text on white paper or vice versa. Special lenses in a variety of colours are available from specialist websites including IrlenUK.

Get some space

If in a crowd where there’s so much going on like noise, constant movement and a lack of space, sensory overload is likely to flare up. If it does, the best thing to do is try and get out of the crowd as quickly as possible. Find somewhere that’s both quiet and spacious to spend time in.

At a party, school, in work or anywhere else indoors, if there’s a quiet room, persuade the autistic person to spend some time there to relax. Don’t pressure them, but being away from all the hubbub will make a difference.

There are many practical ways in which sensory overload can be stopped in its tracks. It all depends on what’s happening, the location and how bad it is, as well as the autistic person’s personal preference.

About the author

Luke Aylward

Luke Aylward

Luke is an Aspie copywriter and designer based in Leeds. He's the chairman of a local support group and enjoys providing accessible info around all things autism.

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