A Personal Perspective and Guide to Sensory Overload

Claire Mitchell

Hello and welcome to our website.

My name is Claire and I created this site along with my partner Daniel.

Sensory overload is a medical condition that is close to our hearts as Daniel’s daughter has suffered from it for over ten years.

We created this page as an introductory guide to sensory overload, what it is, how to spot in someone close to you and what you can do to help.

Sensory Overload

For many of us, going out and about walking around shopping centres, busy places and other brightly lit noisy areas are just regular and simple everyday activities. However, for some people, there could be nothing worse. Thousands of people today suffer from sensory overload, meaning that trying to get on with everyday activities can be very difficult and often needs extensive preparation beforehand.

With the twenty-first century turning out to be one of the most sensory overloaded eras, sufferers and those closest to them need to be able to develop adequate coping mechanisms if they are to cope with life in this environment.

What is Sensory Overload?

Sensory overload means merely an overload of the senses; when everything around a person becomes too overwhelming and they struggle to cope. The primary triggers are noises, bright and flashing lights, animals and even other humans. The senses are heightened and immediately become overworked leaving the brain struggling to cope with the process, ultimately unsure what to do with all this information overload.

Who is More Prone to This Condition and Why?

No one such person is prone to sensory overload and a person suffering from this is in no way abnormal. It is merely a case of too much stimulation, and certain people are more sensitive and prone to overstimulation of the senses and just unable to cope with an abundance of it all at the one time. Those with autism tend to experience sensory overload due to their struggle to deal with excessive stimulation from the broader environment already.

Even so, some of us may not even realise we suffer from this debilitating condition, and any one of us could find ourselves feeling the effects of sensory overload when placed in a confined area with so much activity. Fortunately, some people can appear to deal with it better than others. or may not even realise that what they are dealing with is, in fact, sensory overload.

What Can Be Done to Prevent Sensory Overload?

Unfortunately, as it is not possible to eradicate sensory overload entirely, living in the world that we do today, there are several ways that we can make sure we do not place ourselves willing in environments which we know will start off our sensory overload if possible.

Many parents of children who suffer from sensory overload may be able to quickly identify such causes and make plans to reduce the time spent at them, for example, shopping areas, children’s birthday parties, and family celebrations. However, for most adults who perhaps have no other choice than to place themselves in these types of environments on a regular basis, for example, supermarkets, the workplace and commuting, it can be quite time-consuming and challenging having to plan beforehand.

The sensory overload facts show that each adult and child can react in many ways to many different triggers. The point is that people with sensory overload should not have to hide themselves away and live in the confinements of their four walls. But, at the same time, if their lives can be made that little bit easier, the more prepared both they and those around them will be to cope with it as and when it occurs.

This is a small guide to living with sensory overload that offers both the sufferers and the parents and carers of suffers a little bit of help as to how to try to reduce the number of sensory overload incidents experienced:

For adults suffering from sensory overload:

• Be aware of the immediate signs that trigger your sensory overload and take heed of them, possibly removing yourself as soon as they start to surface.
• Educate yourself on what the most occurring incidents are that tend to cause your sensory overload – be it bright lights, crowded public areas full of noise or even places that have a strong scent connected to them. This can enable you to come up with a plan of action, should you have no choice other than to enter such environments as an adult.
• Can you tailor your work commute to other hours where you won’t have to travel with so many different passengers, or could you purchase a pair of noise cancellation headphones to block out the noise instead?
• If bright lights are a trigger, don’t be afraid to wear sunglasses whenever you want to block out the light. You may feel strange putting on a pair of sunglasses in the mid-winter but, if it can get you through a brightly lit shop without causing you anxiety, what you look like is not really the priority here! Consequently, if you wear spectacles, look at the benefits of reaction lenses which do a great job of blocking out all such light both inside and outside.
• If supermarkets, shopping centres and general tasks in such places as these really are a struggle, can you not perform them at reduced peak time hours? Maybe look at purchasing some items online to take the pressure off the number of trips you must take to specific areas.
• Can you inform close friends and family about your situation, so they can also look out for you and spot the signs ahead of time? This way you aren’t made to feel as though you are being rude or unsociable when you need to take five minutes out to recuperate when out and about with other people

For parents or carers of children suffering from sensory overload:

• Can you make their immediate environment a calm and serene area where they can retreat to and get away from any experience of sensory overload when they wish to?
• Talk to the school about your child’s situation and agree on a plan of action. Many schools these days are aware and fully equipped to deal with children who suffer from sensory overload and may even have a particular area in the school where your child can retreat to if it all gets a bit too much at school.
• If you must take your child to the shops or places where you know it will be busy beforehand, plan and limit the time you spend in each store, with a good-sized number of breaks attached, and maybe find an area where they can sit and relax before you start again.
• Children’s parties or family celebrations can be stressful social situations for all children suffering from sensory overload, and it is tough to find a perfect solution when it is a party of someone you do not know that well. It may be best to stay with your child and let them know that you are in the background should they need you at some point. Then, if it does become a bit too much, you can then take them out for a time and allow them to recuperate away from the noise.
• As with adults, if you are travelling on public transport with your child and you know they will struggle with the mass of crowds and noise, why not have their headphones and soothing music to hand to allow them to block out the outside world for the duration of the tip?
• If your child struggles with lighting, and this is one of their triggers, think about taking out a pair of sunglasses with them so they can place them on at certain times or specific areas where the lighting issue is unavoidable. If your child is a spectacles wearer, talk to their optician about the possibility of adding reaction lenses into their prescription.
• The most vital factor in looking after a child with sensory overload is to plan, plan, plan! Though it can seem long-winded and at times a chore to have to prepare for every day away from the house, it is worth it if both you and your child are to get through each day without a meltdown.

For many adults and children who suffer from sensory overload, shop lighting, alongside music which seems to be played at ear-splitting levels these days, is almost unavoidable. For a sensory overload sufferer, there is nothing worse than such a combination. As it appears to be a favourite way to display products and services in stores now, there is little else it seems sensory overload sufferers can do to avoid such areas.

Yet, a few large department stores have been listening to customers and are beginning to make amends to if not turn off, then at least turn down the music they play. With some shops going as far as to start introducing quieter hours, a number of these stores will not only turn off the music but also the TV’s and screens, dimming the lights and sometimes even stopping the escalators at such allocated times!

It may be worth speaking to groups in your area to look at lobbying individual businesses and companies to trial such concepts in your city. If enough people can come together and talk about their experiences, stores will have to sit up and take note. Better still, this may even have been the first time such places have been informed about sensory overload.

How to Help

Though we can do things to prevent sensory overload, it is not always possible to catch every opportunity, and there will be many times a sufferer is caught unaware. It can be a distressing time and often leaves parents, family, and friends feeling helpless as they witness it. However, with a good support network around the sufferer, it is possible for us to help those who are in danger of sensory overload:

• Remove them from the situation quickly, safely and with the minimum amount of fuss that you can. You can always explain to others around you later about why you had to do this, but, for now, the primary concern is getting the sufferer away from the cause.
• Distract them while you think on your feet. Sometimes there will be areas where you find you aren’t able to get away quickly from, for example in the middle of a supermarket or onboard public transport. Do anything you can to ease the situation by talking to the sufferer calmly, offering them your hand as they close their eyes, and perhaps getting them to do a simple breathing technique that will get them to a better state until you can get out of the place you are in.
• Ask for help. With so many people trained and aware of the many experiences of sensory overload, it is not as uncommon to people as many tend to think. Therefore, if you find yourself with somebody who is showing signs of struggling, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to know what to, inform a member of staff about the situation and ask if they could offer you a safe space while you wait for the situation to calm down. For example, many train station staff will be used to this and could provide you access to a quieter area of the station. Alternatively, many large supermarkets are also used to assisting customers with various needs, and they too could take you to a safe area while you wait for the episode to reside.

Looking to The Future

Unfortunately, with the imminent introduction of the next best gaming consoles, mobile phones, sound systems, lighting set-ups, all just around the corner, it seems like things will never improve completely for those who suffer from sensory overload. Similarly, with the increase in population, and as cities become denser, public transport and shopping areas will all continue to increase in noise, population, and bright lights.

Though it is essential to ensure that those sufferers do not find themselves becoming disconnected from society and ultimately housebound, it is imperative that for anyone dealing with it on their own, or parents of suffers and close friends and family members, all be aware and educated and ultimately look at prevention rather than cure.

Relaxation techniques are powerful additions to all sufferers and should be implemented as soon as a diagnosis is made. Though they will not stop the overwhelming sensations occurring, or even eradicate them when they are in full swing, they will give the sufferer some time out. They will also encourage them to try and hold a slightly calmer state until they can remove themselves from the situation, which is a lot better than implementing no kind of technique during an attack as such.

As it is most likely sufferers will continue to live with sensory overload throughout their lives, it is a great idea to look ahead to the future and work on implementing whatever you can to make your own life, or that of a sufferer as best as you can. Whether this means taking specific measures around the home to eradicate the triggers or whether it means having to rethink the way you shop and travel. Though it will never be possible to eliminate sensory overload in its entirety, it is possible to make steps towards acting to reduce its power over those who suffer from it.