How to Reduce Sensory Overload

Four Parts:Preventing OverloadCoping With OverstimulationHelping an Autistic Person Cope with OverloadHelping Someone Cope

People who experience difficulty processing sensory information, such as autistic people, those with sensory processing disorder (SPD), or highly sensitive people can sometimes go into a state of sensory overload. Overload occurs when a person experiences too much sensory stimulation and cannot handle it all, like a computer trying to process too much data and overheating. This can happen when there’s a lot going on, like hearing people talk while a tv blares in the background, being surrounded in a crowd, or seeing lots of blinking screens or flashing lights. If you or someone you know is experiencing sensory overload, there are some things you can do to help reduce its effects.

Part 1
Preventing Overload

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    Recognize the onset of overload. Overload can show up in different ways for different people. It may look like a panic attack, getting "hyper," shutting down, or having a meltdown (which resembles a tantrum, but is not thrown on purpose).[1]
    • During a relaxed time, ask yourself about the signs of sensory overload. What triggers it? What behavior do you (or your loved one) use when you start feeling overwhelmed? If you are a parent or caretaker, you can also ask a child who experiences sensory overload about triggers when he is relaxed.
    • Many autistic people use different "stims," or repetitive motor mannerisms, when overloaded than at other times (such as rocking when happy and hand-flapping when overloaded). Think about if you have a stim that you only use for self-calming or coping with overload.
    • If you lose normal functioning abilities, such as speaking, this is often a sign of severe overload. Caretakers and parents may especially notice this with young children who are overloaded.
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    Reduce visual stimulation. A person experiencing visual overload may need to wear sunglasses indoors, refuse eye contact, turn away from people who are speaking, cover one's eyes, and bump into people or things.[2] To help with visual stimulation, reduce the items that hang from the ceiling or walls. Keep small items put away in bins or boxes, and organize and label the bins.[3]
    • If lighting is overwhelming, use a lamp instead of fluorescent lighting. You can also use darker bulbs instead of bright bulbs. Use blackout curtains to minimize light.[4]
    • If indoor lights are overwhelming, using sunshades can be helpful.[5]
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    Lower the noise level. Overstimulation of sound may include not being able to shut off background noises (such as someone having a conversation far away), which can influence concentration. Some noises can be perceived as excruciatingly loud and distracting. To help with noise overstimulation, shut any open doors or windows that may be allowing sound inside. Lower or turn off any music that may be distracting, or go somewhere more quiet.[6] Minimize verbal directions and/or conversations.
    • Having ear plugs, headphones, and white noise may come in handy when noises seem too overwhelming.[7]
    • If you are trying to communicate with someone experiencing audio sensory overload, ask yes or no questions instead of open-ended questions. These are easier to respond to, and can be answered with thumbs up/thumbs down.
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    Lessen tactile input. Tactile overload, which refers to the sensation of touch, can include being unable to handle to be touched or hugged. Many people with sensory processing issues are hypersensitive to touch, and being touched or thinking they are about to be touched can worsen the overload. Tactile sensitivity can include a sensitivity to clothing (preferring soft fabrics) or to touching certain textures or temperatures. Recognize what textures are pleasing and which ones are not. Make sure that any new clothing is sensory-friendly.[8]
    • If you are a caretaker or friend, listen when someone says touch hurts and/or pulls away. Acknowledge the pain and don’t continue touching the person.
    • When interacting with someone with tactile sensitivity, always alert him when you are about to touch him, and come from the front, never from behind.[9]
    • Refer to an occupational therapist for more sensory integration ideas.
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    Regulate smells. Some fragrances or stenches may be overwhelming, and unlike sight, you cannot shut your nose to disengage the sense. If smells are overwhelming, consider using unscented shampoos, detergents, and cleaning products.[10]
    • Remove as many unpleasant scents as possible from the environment. You could buy unscented products, or you may enjoy getting crafty and making your own unscented toothpaste, soaps, and detergent.

Part 2
Coping With Overstimulation

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    Take a sensory break. You may feel overwhelmed when surrounded by large groups of people or lots of children. Sometimes these situations are unavoidable, like at a family function or a business conference. While you may not be able to fully escape the situation, you can take a break to help you recover from overload. Trying to "tough it out" will only make things worse and make it take even longer to recover. Taking a break can help you recharge and remove you from the situation before it becomes unbearable.[11]
    • Respond to your needs early on, and they will be easier to handle.
    • If you are in public, consider excusing yourself to the bathroom, or say "I need some air" and go outside for a few minutes.
    • If you are in a home, see if there’s a place to lie down and briefly rest.
    • Say "I need some alone time" if people are trying to follow you when you can't handle it.
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    Find a balance. It is important for you to learn your limits and set boundaries, but also not to limit yourself too much so that you become bored. Make sure your basic needs are met, as your threshold for stimulation may be affected things like hunger, exhaustion, loneliness, and physical pain.[12] At the same time, make sure you aren't stretching yourself too thin.
    • Meeting these essential needs is important for everyone, but it may be especially important for highly sensitive people or those with SPD.[13]
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    Set your limits. When dealing with situations that may cause sensory overload, set some limits. If noise is bothersome, consider going to restaurants or shopping malls at quieter hours of the day and not during rush.[14] You may want to set limits on how much time you spend watching tv or on a computer, or socializing with friends and family. If a big event is coming up, prepare yourself throughout the day to handle the situation to the best of your ability.
    • You may need to set limits on conversations. If long conversations drain you, politely excuse yourself.
    • If you are a caretaker or parent, monitor the child’s activity and find patterns of when too much tv or computer starts to be overloading.
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    Give yourself time to recover. It can take minutes to hours to fully recover from an episode of sensory overload. If the ”fight-flight-or-freeze” mechanisms have been engaged, it’s likely you will be very tired afterward.[15] If you can, try to reduce stress occurring later on as well. Alone time is often the best way to recover.
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    Consider coping techniques to deal with stress. Working on decreasing stress and developing heathy ways to cope with stress and overstimulation can help decrease the arousal of your nervous system.[16]Yoga, meditation, and deep breathing are all ways you can decrease stress, find balance, and even a sense of security over time.[17]
    • Use the coping mechanisms that help you best. You may instinctively know what you need, like rocking or going somewhere silent. Don't worry if it's "weird" or not; focus on what can help you.
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    Try occupational therapy. For adults and children, occupational therapy can help reduce sensory sensitivities and therefore lessen overload over time. Treatment outcome is stronger if started young. As a caretaker, look for a therapist who is experienced in dealing with sensory processing issues.[18]

Part 3
Helping an Autistic Person Cope with Overload

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    Try creating a "sensory diet." A sensory diet is a way to help the person's nervous system feel organized and efficient, providing sensory input in a way that is nourishing and routine.[19] A sensory diet can include sensory input created by interactions with other people, the environment, activities scheduled at certain times of the day, and recreational activities.[20]
    • Think about a sensory diet as you would a healthy, balanced food diet. You want the person to get the necessary nutrients from a variety of sources, but you don't want her to get too much or too little of something, either, as this could impair growth or a healthy, functioning body. With a sensory diet, you want the person to have a balanced experience of different sensory inputs.
    • So, if the person is overstimulated by auditory stimulation (or sound), you may minimize verbal directions and instead use more visuals and spend time in places with minimal background noise or allow her to use earplugs. However, the auditory sense still needs nourishment, so you also give the person time to listen to her favorite music.[21]
    • Minimize unnecessary sensory input by limiting the visual material in the room, allowing the use of headphones or earplugs, finding clothing that is comfortable, using scent-free detergents and soaps, and so on.
    • The hope of the sensory diet is to calm the person and possibly normalize sensory input, teach the person to manage impulses and emotions, and increase productivity.[22]
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    Avoid overreacting to aggression. In some cases, overloaded people become physically or verbally aggressive.[23] As a caretaker, it’s hard to not take it personally. This reaction is more about panic and not about you.
    • Most often physical aggression occurs because you tried to touch or restrain the person or blocked their escape, so he panicked. Never try to grab a person or control his behavior.
    • It is rare for someone who is overloaded to actually cause serious harm. The individual doesn’t actually want to hurt you, he just wants to get out of the situation.
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    Pay attention to vestibular input. A person with autism who experiences sensory overload may be sensitive to perceptions of balance or movement.[24] She may be particularly susceptible to motion sickness, easily lose her balance, and have trouble with hand/eye coordination. [25]
    • If the person seems overwhelmed by movement or is inactive, you can try slowing down your own movements or practice moving slowly and carefully to different positions (transitioning from laying down to standing, etc.).

Part 4
Helping Someone Cope

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    Intervene early. Sometimes, a person may not realize that they are struggling, and may stay longer than they should or try to "tough it out." This only makes things worse. Intervene on their behalf as soon as you notice that they are getting stressed, and help them take some quiet time to calm down.
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    Be compassionate and understanding. Your loved one is feeling overwhelmed and upset, and your support can comfort them and help them calm down. Be loving, empathetic, and responsive to their needs.[26]
    • Remember, they aren't doing this on purpose. Being judgmental will only worsen their stress level.
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    Provide an exit. The fastest way to stop the overload is often to remove them from the situation. See if you can take them outside or to a quieter place. Ask them to follow you, or offer to take their hand if they can handle being touched.
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    Make the area more hospitable. Lower any bright lights, turn off music, and encourage others to give your loved one some space.
    • The person can tell when people are watching them, and may be embarrassed or ashamed if they feel like they are being stared at.
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    Ask before touching them. During overload, the person can have trouble understanding what is happening, and if you startle them, they may misinterpret it as an attack. Offer first, and talk about what you're doing before you do it, so they have time to decline. For example, "I'd like to take your hand and lead you out of here," or "Would you like a hug?"
    • Sometimes, overloaded people are soothed by a tight hug or a back rub. Other times, being touched makes it worse. Offer it, and don't worry if they say no; it isn't personal.
    • Don't trap them or get in their way. They may panic and lash out, such as pushing you away from the door so that they can leave.
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    Ask simple, yes or no questions. Open-ended questions are more difficult to process, and when the person's brain is already struggling to cope, they may not be able to form a meaningful answer. If it's a yes or no question, they can nod their head or give a thumbs up/thumbs down to respond.
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    Respond to needs. The person might need a drink of water, a break, or to move onto a different activity. Think about what would be most helpful right now, and go do it.
    • As a caretaker, It’s easy to respond in your own frustration, but remind yourself that he cannot help his behaviors and he needs your support.
    • If you see someone using a harmful coping mechanism, alert someone who knows what to do (e.g. a parent or therapist). Trying to grab them may cause them to panic and lash out, putting both of you at risk for getting hurt. A therapist can help develop a plan to replace the harmful coping mechanism.
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    Encourage self-calming, whatever it means to them. They might find it useful to rock back and forth, cuddle under a weighted blanket, hum, or get a massage from you. It's okay if it looks weird or isn't "age appropriate;" all that matters is that it helps them unwind.
    • If you know of something that usually calms them (e.g. their favorite stuffed animal), bring it to them and set it within arm's reach. If they want it, they can grab it.


  • For adults and children, occupational therapy can help reduce sensory sensitivities and therefore lessen overload over time. Treatment outcome is stronger if started young. As a caretaker, look for a therapist who is experienced in dealing with sensory processing issues.[27]

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Categories: Stimming and Sensory Issues | Interacting with Autistic People