Understanding & Dealing With Sensory Overload In Young Children
While diagnoses like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have become more common over the past few years, few people are aware of SPD or Sensory Processing Disorder. This is largely because sensory processing disorders and sensory overload are frequently noticed in people with Autism and/or ADHD, leading to a lack of medical consensus as to whether SPD is a separate diagnosis of its own.
Nonetheless, SPD leads to its own unique challenges and can affect young children in severe ways. Simply put, SPD affects how your brain processes one or multiple senses. It can mean both being over- and under-stimulated by a baseline level of stimuli as others, and manifests in unique ways cross each individual.
SPD affects how a child processes sensory information, often leading them to experience sensory overloads or shutdowns where they cannot properly process the sensory stimuli of the world around them. These sensory overloads are overwhelming and can be frightening for both caregivers and children. By understanding some of the nuances of SPD, you can learn how to help your child effectively navigate the sensory world and provide them with tools to self-soothe and become independent.
Hypersensitivity VS Hyposensitivity
Broadly, there are two different types of sensory processing disorder in children: hyposensitivity and hypersensitivity. Many children will experience a mix of these two that may fluctuate or even stabilise as they grow older.
Hypersensitivity is what people typically think of when people bring up SPD or sensory overloads. Children who are hypersensitive to sensory stimuli will typically avoid sensory experiences that upset them. This is because mundane experiences feel amplified for them to the point of discomfort or pain; for example, wearing a scratchy shirt may just feel irritating to most people, but a child with SPD may feel as if they have needles jabbing into their skin. Coping techniques for hypersensitivity tend to dull the sensory stimuli in question such as wearing noise-cancelling headphones, avoiding rooms with fluorescent lights, or wearing softer or specific fabrics.
Hyposensitivity is less discussed in the SPD community. This subset of the disorder describes children who cannot process limited sensory stimuli and seek out more intense experiences to achieve the same result. For example, a child may have an unusually high pain tolerance or be very tactile when they interact with people and things. This may lead to problems as the child may play rough with other children - assuming they all have the same pain tolerance or satisfaction in the physicality - or even hurt themselves as they do not recognise the sensation of pain in the same way.
Hypersensitivity and hyposensitivity can co-exist within children with SPD, Autism, ADHD, or Global Developmental Delay (GDD); it may be that a child is more sensitive to tactile sensations such as touch, but has difficulty registering different flavours in their food due to a hyposensitive sense of taste.
Dealing with Sensory Overload in Children
There are a few key strategies to help children with SPD navigate their complex relationship to the physical world. Many professionals will recommend grounding activities like jumping jacks, kinetic sand or weighted blankets to help the child process stimuli effectively. These can be useful soothing techniques, or as a way to gently desensitise the child to a specific stimulus over time.
But when a child is already overwhelmed by stimuli and becomes distressed, this can result in a sensory overload. When experiencing a sensory overload, a child may feel more sensitive than normal to noise, sights, sounds or smells. They may resist being touched by people or become anxious about their surroundings. When a child doesn't understand what is going on, this can manifest as extreme irritability or emotional outbursts. This can be interpreted as tantrums or defiance by others, but should not be conflated; sensory overload can be a scary and sometimes traumatic experience for the child, and the child is often unable to just ‘snap out’ of an overloaded state.
It is important to note that an ADHD sensory overload will look different to an Autistic sensory overload, and each occurrence will be even more unique with each individual child. This is because children react to stress differently, so don’t expect your child to necessarily become agitated when experiencing overload; they could also become anxious and withdrawn depending on how they’ve feeling.
There are a few ways to help a child experiencing sensory overload ground themselves and bring them out of an overwhelmed state:
Breathe in time together, counting from 1 to 10 and vice versa
Allowing for vestibular movement (commonly referred to as “stimming”) to soothe and calm your child
Being proactive can also help you and your child avoid and navigate sensory processing meltdowns, such as:
Knowing specific sensory triggers, and avoiding them where possible
Talking to your child before entering any new situation or environment to familiarise them with potential triggers. A post-outing debrief can also help your child process what just happened.
Identifying calming sensations such as deep pressure that can be used as a calming technique
These strategies when combined with professional care can help a child learn to self-regulate and eventually process the world without experiencing sensory overloads.
How MindChamps Allied Care can Help
MindChamps Allied Care is a child therapy centre in Singapore that helps children bridge developmental gaps and develop strategies to meaningfully participate in social events and important intrapersonal stages.
If you’re concerned your child may have sensory processing disorder, ADHD, Autism or GDD, MindChamps Allied Care can help you begin to pursue a potential diagnosis with an initial professional clinical assessment. Following the outcome of our assessment, our therapists can recommend suitable therapies or early intervention that can help your child cope with their symptoms.
All therapies employed at MindChamps Allied Care are evidence-based and founded on academic research and clinical expertise. Our team of therapists employs an array of proven approaches to help all children in our care get the most out of their therapy. If you’re interested in getting help for your child, then get in touch with our team today or consider visiting one of our centres today. Find out more in our FAQs.