Parents of special needs kids are no different than any other parents. They want the best for their children. They want them to have fulfilling lives full of positive and meaningful experiences. They want their kids to succeed. They want their kids to thrive. And a thriving child is an active child, one that’s exposed to the everyday environments and activities that surround them. The problem for parents of special needs children with sensory processing issues is that sharing everyday activities outside the home – like shopping, eating at a restaurant, and attending public events – can sometimes be a monumental challenge. That’s because taking their children out always comes with the possibility of a dreaded meltdown brought on by sensory overload.
You don’t have to have a special needs child to know about sensory overload – or what you might think is sensory overload. Many people believe that it’s the same thing as a temper tantrum. This is incorrect. A temper tantrum is an outburst that occurs when a child wants something and he or she isn’t getting it, like that candy bar on the rack next to the checkout at the market, or maybe just a parent’s attention. Sensory overload is something entirely different and that requires a totally different response. While instances of sensory overload can occur to almost anyone, almost anywhere, they are likely to happen more often with special needs children, especially those with autism, ADHD, and any of a number of other disorders and conditions.
Having a clear understanding of just exactly what sensory overload is – and how it affects special needs children – is crucial to the lessening the frequency and severity of sensory overload triggered meltdowns in public. That’s what this guide is all about.
What is Sensory Overload?
Sensory overload is a condition that results from the overstimulation of one or more of an individual’s five senses caused or triggered by certain elements in his or her surrounding environment. Specific examples of sensory overload triggers include:
- Hearing: noises (talking, yelling, music, street noise, etc.) oftentimes coming from more than one source, such as a crowded room of people talking at the same time, or music played loudly in combination with people talking; loud, concussive noises coming from a single source.
- Sight: bright lights (spotlights, lamps, or movie, TV or computer screens); pulsating, strobing or rapidly-changing light sources; cluttered or crowded spaces; environments with a great deal of movement.
- Touch: being touched by an animal or other person, or even an inanimate object; particular types of fabric against the skin or simply wearing clothing.
- Taste: specific types of food, such as spicy foods or foods prepared in an objectionable way.
- Smell: strong or unfamiliar aromas (foods, perfumes or colognes, etc.)
- Vestibular issues: motion sickness; dizziness; loss of balance.
In many cases, sensory overload results from a combination of the overstimulation of two or more senses at the same time.
Just about anyone can experience a sensory overload event (aka meltdown) given the right environment and circumstances. However, sensory processing issues – which can lead to sensory overload – are often a feature or component of any one of a number of other disorders, including:
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Chronic fatigue syndrome
- Generalized anxiety disorder
- Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Tourette syndrome
Sensory processing issues are most commonly associated with neuro-developmental conditions that fall under the heading of autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Generally speaking, sensory overload issues are the inevitable result of an ever-changing and quickening modern world full of sights and sounds purposely designed to constantly assault the senses. Most people are able to adjust and cope with their busier, more congested lives. But for those with sensory processing issues, it’s often all too much. The result? Sensory overload.
Sensory Processing Disorder
The term “sensory overload” is often found in studies and articles that additionally include the term “sensory processing disorder.” Sensory processing disorder, or SPD, can be described as multisensory integration malfunction where the individual is unable to process sensory inputs in a way that allows for an appropriate response. Whether SPD is simply a component of other disorders or an actual disorder distinct in itself – or both – remains open to debate. Nevertheless, sensory overload certainly results from some form of misprocessing of sensory information in the brain, the definition of SPD.
Tantrums, Temper Tantrums, Meltdowns, Sensory Meltdowns, Sensory Overload…
Confused? That’s not surprising. There’s a lot here to be confused about. These terms are often used incorrectly to mean the same thing or describe similar behaviors. And the truth is that tantrums and meltdowns often appear to the average onlooker to be the same. They are, however, different. Here’s how:
Tantrums (or temper tantrums) are outbursts, mostly by young children, that occur in an attempt to force someone to pay attention to the person throwing the tantrum. Tantrums happen for an infinite number of reasons. For example, they can occur when a child doesn’t get a toy that he or she wants, or when the child feels that his/her parent is paying more attention or showing preference to another sibling. Tantrums are what we’ve all witnessed a hundred times in stores and restaurants, on the street and at playgrounds.
A meltdown (or sensory meltdown) is a reaction to sensory overload, which itself is the result of an inability to properly process all of the inputs of the senses at a given time. The person suffering a meltdown has no control over what his/her body and mind are doing during the meltdown. Meltdowns can happen to almost anyone with sensory overload issues: young children, pre-teens, teens, and adults.
A meltdown is not a reaction to a failure to get attention. In fact, more attention may be the worst thing that a person can give someone in the midst of a meltdown. A meltdown is not a bad behavioral problem. It’s not really a behavioral issue at all. And maybe the single most important thing to remember is that a meltdown is not the fault of the person having it
What Does Sensory Overload Look Like?
To the untrained eye, a sensory overload event or meltdown can look an awful lot like a common run-of-the-mill temper tantrum. There’s likely to be any number of things happening during a meltdown, including yelling, screaming, biting, kicking, crying, and lashing out. Like tantrums, a person having a meltdown appears to be out of control. The difference is that the person suffering a meltdown is actually out of control, they’re not just acting out.
What Does Sensory Overload Feel Like?
What a meltdown feels like varies significantly from person to person. It’s also often very difficult for those that suffer from sensory overload to describe the experience. Words that have been used to describe what it’s like include: intense feelings of fear, panic, desperation, anger, sadness, los of ability to think, “spinning out of control,” “flipping a switch,” “someone taking over my body,” and “an explosion of pressure or emotion.”
Meltdown Signals and Symptoms
There are a number of telltale signs that indicate the beginnings of sensory overload events. It’s just a question of knowing what to look for. While specific symptoms vary significantly from individual to individual, there are several that are quite common, including:
- Sudden or extreme irritability
- Complaining about ordinary sights, sounds, smells, or other stimuli not apparently upsetting in the current environment
- Stopping in place or sudden refusal to participate in or continue with the current activity
- Anger and lashing out toward objects or other people
- Aversion to touching or being touched
- Failure or refusal to make eye contact
- Tensing up
- Restlessness or fidgeting
- Covering of eyes or ears
- Loss of balance
- Bumping into walls or other people
- Hitting or punching
- Shutting down completely
- Dropping into a fetal position
- Fleeing or running away while oblivious to surrounding dangers
The above list consists of what are considered “hypersensitive” symptoms. Conversely, sensory overload may be indicated by behaviors that are hyposensitive, meaning that the person reacts with a lower than normal response to stimuli. For example, a common hypersensitive reaction to sensory overload is the immediate and pointed aversion to any form of physical sensation, like being touched, while the corresponding hyposensitive reaction would be the immediate need to be touched or for another form of physical sensation. This need can lead to self-stimulation or “stimming” activities. Examples of stimming include:
- Hand flapping
- Focus or fixation on a particular object or specific stimulus (like a certain sound or color) possibly involving some form of repetitive movement, such as with a rotating ceiling fan
- Putting inedible objects into the mouth
- Rubbing or stroking
- Sniffing or smelling objects or other people
- Head banging
Complicating matters, many individuals with sensory processing issues will react to overload situations with a combination of both hypersensitive and hyposensitive behaviors.
Tips for Avoiding a Sensory Overload Event While In Public
There are lots of things you can do to reduce the likelihood of a meltdown. It just takes a little thought and planning. Some are obvious, like simply avoiding places with big crowds, bright lights, lots of noise, and strong smells. Here are a few other suggestions:
Check Out the Places You’re Planning to Visit Beforehand
Chances are that if you’re heading out to do your regular shopping you have a good idea of the environments you’ll be encountering. If you’ll be visiting a business you’ve never shopped at before, it’s a good idea to stop by and check it out before taking your child there. Or if you plan is to take your child to a special event at a specific restaurant or public location, it might help to visit that location with your child before attending the event. You’ll get a good idea of the sights and sounds that might act as triggers, allowing you to formulate strategies for avoiding them. You might even want to talk to management or staff to see if they are set up to accommodate special needs customers. Finally, you may determine that there are simply too many potential sensory landmines to bring your child into that environment and opt for patronizing an alternative business.
Create an Action Plan
Children and others with sensory processing issues are much less likely to suffer overload problems in public when they have a clear and concise understanding of where they’ll be going and what they’ll be doing. That means putting together a plan of action before you leave the house and – most importantly – sharing that plan with your child. Let them know each of the stores or places you plan to visit, along with the order in which you intend to visit them. Explain how long you estimate you’ll be and what you expect to accomplish at each stop. Discuss the potential triggers you may encounter – sights, sounds, smells, etc. – and what you might do to deal with them.
One more thing: Creating and following a detailed plan of action means fewer unexpected problems, and that means less chance of sensory overload. But your plan will only work if you stick to it.
Take Along an Emergency Meltdown Kit
Do you keep an emergency preparedness kit at home in case of, well, an emergency? Chances are you probably do. Most people keep a plastic tub or backpack with important items like flashlights, extra batteries, a first aid kit, emergency radio, etc., in an easily accessible location. Just in case. So, if you keep an emergency preparedness kit on the off chance that an emergency might occur, doesn’t it make sense to keep an emergency meltdown kit for those times that you know for sure are going to happen?
An emergency meltdown kit it is a container – usually a backpack that a kid can carry with him or her – that’s packed with a variety of items to help calm your child when the inevitable sensory overload event occurs. The particular items you include in your kit will vary depending on the unique needs and preferences of your child. There are, however, a few things all kits should contain. Here are some suggestions to get you started:
- Snacks: Include a few food and drink items that your child likes and that fit their particular dietary and allergy/food sensitivity requirements. Always include a water bottle.
- Change of Clothes: This is an obvious choice for young children, especially those yet to be toilet-trained. But other kinds of accidents often happen during meltdowns – spilled drinks or food stains, for example – so it’s a good idea to keep an extra set of clothes on hand regardless of your child’s age.
- Identification and Contact Information: It’s scary to think that you might become separated from your child during a meltdown, but sensory overload does result in some kids running away from the scene. That’s why it’s important to keep ID and contact information in your kit. Include your child’s name, age, and health info (blood type, specific physical and mental health issues) as well as contact numbers for you, your child’s doctor and school, and anyone else that you deem necessary to be called in an emergency. Always include alternate personal contacts in case you cannot immediately be reached. Along with these basics, consider including a family photo, list of sensory overload triggers, and hints for dealing with your child.
- Sensory/Calming Related Items: Finally, keep a collection of toys and other devices that have proven to help calm your child in the past. These typically include such items as noise-cancelling headphones, tablets (with extra batteries), games, stuffed toys, fidget toys, and favorite books.
If you find that there are simply too many items for your child to carry at the same time, you can divide items between two bags and either carry one yourself or keep one containing items not instantly needed (like clothes) in the car.
Bring a Shopping Companion With You
Shopping with someone with a sensory processing issue is almost always easier when you bring along an additional shopping companion. The key is that it needs to be someone your child knows and feels comfortable with, and knows and is comfortable with your child. He or she should also have experience in dealing with meltdowns and be someone you trust leaving your child with outside the store while you go in to do your shopping, if the circumstance requires it.
Start Out with a Well-Fed, Well-Hydrated and Well-Rested Child
A tired, hungry or thirsty child is a stressed child, and stress is the gateway to sensory overload. So, always make sure your child is fed, hydrated and rested before heading out of the house.
Take Breaks While You’re Out
You can and should include scheduled breaks a part of your action plan. Whether or not they’re planned ahead time, it’s important to find quiet, uncrowded places where you and your child can stop and rest, and maybe refuel with a snack.
Always Be Prepared to Bail
Sometimes avoiding sensory overload while in public simply comes down to getting out of there as quickly as possible, and that’s another thing you need to be ready for. Parents of kids with sensory processing issues know the signs of an oncoming meltdown, and when they notice them, there’s no time to waste. When visiting a store, always be aware of the fastest and shortest escape route. When in a restaurant, it’s always a good idea to let your waitperson know that an immediate exit may be required. Most importantly, don’t hesitate for a moment to instantly bail if you feel a meltdown is in the offing. You can always come back later to pay the bill.
Want Some Good News? More and More Businesses are Catering to Special Needs Customers
Businesses are slowly beginning to wake up to the fact that accommodating special needs kids and their parents is good for their bottom line. Some retail chains, for example, have begun holding special “sensory-friendly” events or designating specific “quiet hours” during which lights in their outlets are dimmed and music is turned off. In another case, a major commercial landlord has offered special Christmastime events that include special shopping hours with dimmed lights and limited crowds, and feature a “Caring Santa” trained at dealing with kids with sensory processing issues. While these efforts by retailers are still few and far between, they hopefully represent a growing trend. In the meantime, parents and others advocating for the special needs community may want to let their local merchants in on what these other businesses are doing.
What to Do if Your Child is Having a Meltdown
Spotting one or more of the above-listed symptoms early while out shopping or in another public place may in some cases allow you to act to prevent a total meltdown, but it’s highly unlikely you’ll be able to avoid them altogether. When a full-blown meltdown does happen, here are a few suggestions for what you can do to help:
- A meltdown can be extremely stressful not only for the person having it but for others in the immediate area. As a parent of a child having a meltdown, your primary goal is to help calm your child down. This is next to impossible if you’re not calm yourself. Try not to talk to your child too much. Once the meltdown is happening, your child’s brain is likely unable to process what you’re saying, anyway. Relax and remember that a meltdown is not a behavioral problem (i.e. tantrum), so respond accordingly.
Allow Your Child and Make Sure Your Child is Safe
- A child in meltdown mode is not in control of his or her surroundings, so you have to be. You’re probably pretty good at keeping all dangerous objects away from your child at home, but that can be nearly impossible in a public setting. Therefore, it’s important to assess your child’s immediate surroundings and remove any objects that could prove dangerous. Examples include sharp or breakable items, and anything that your child might throw or swallow. But you know already what’s dangerous to your child. The key is to simply use your parental common sense.
Remove Sensory Overload Triggers, If Possible
- Returning your child to a calm, safe state as soon as possible is the goal once a meltdown has begun. That means one of two things: removing the triggers causing the sensory overload or removing your child from the triggering environment. As the parent of a child with sensory processing issues, you’ve become keenly aware of those things that trigger an overload, so start by identifying and removing those triggering issues as quickly as possible. This is, of course, easier said than done in a store or restaurant, but do the best you can. For example, if a salesperson or waiter is nearby – and it’s likely one is – ask them to help by dimming the lights or turning off music.
If You Can’t Remove the Surrounding Triggers, Then Remove Your Child from the Surroundings
- The best course of action may just be to remove your child from the current overstimulating environment. This may simply mean leaving the store or restaurant immediately. You may also want to ask the nearby salesperson or waiter if there is a quiet room or area nearby that you can take your child to. It never hurts to ask. Whatever action you take, remember to treat your child gently while doing so.
Use Your Emergency Meltdown Kit
- You prepared your emergency meltdown kit for just this situation. Now is the time to break it out.
Use a Weighted Blanket
- A weighted blanket is pretty much just what it sounds like. It’s a blanket that typically weighs approximately ten percent of your child’s total body weight, the purpose of which is to apply a gentle pressure to the user. For many children, the sensation creates a calming effect while promoting the release of dopamine and serotonin, helping elevate mood. A weighted blanket is not always convenient to carry with you when you are out shopping, but if your child is particularly susceptible to meltdowns while in public, it might be a good idea to keep one handy in your vehicle.
Allow Your Child the Time Needed to Recover
- Once you’ve reached a place away from the environment causing the sensory overload, allow your child to return to a calm state at his or her own pace. If you haven’t done so already, now is a good time to help your child find their center through breathing. No need to move on (to home or somewhere else) quickly. Common sense should tell you that rushing is counterproductive. Your child will let you know when they’re ready. The British have a saying: “Keep calm and carry on.” What you want to do is “get calm before carrying on.”
Interview with Blogger Rob Gorski
Rob Gorski and his wife Lizze are the parents of three sons, all of whom are on the Autism Spectrum. Rob began writing about the challenges of being a parent of children with autism in 2010 with his popular and award-winning blog, Lost and Tired, which he rebranded in 2015 as The Autism Dad. Rob’s writings have been featured on CNN.com and countless other blogs and websites.