Helping Children With Autism Avoid Overstimulation

8/30/2019 By Mariel Spicer, BCBA

Many children with autism are very sensitive to their environments and it can be hard for them to filter out sensory information that comes in. This sensitivity sometimes leads to overstimulation, which can make your child distressed and sometimes cause a meltdown. Overstimulation can make seemingly simple outings challenging. Here are some things you can do to help your child avoid overstimulation.

1. Create a plan together

If you know ahead of time that you are going to an event or outing that will be overwhelming for your child, you can create a plan together so that they know what to expect. Going over this plan with your child before the event can help prepare them and make them feel more in control of the situation. You can include things like:

  • What time you will arrive at the event
  • Activities you will do when you are there. You may even want to put this in a checklist that they can mark off during the day.
  • Social stories to walk them through any new or potentially scary activities
  • Scheduled quiet times where they can take a break from the environment
  • What time you plan to leave

2. Use sensory blocking aids

If you know your child is overstimulated by certain inputs, use sensory blocking aids to reduce the stimulation before it becomes overwhelming. Examples of sensory aids include:

  • Sunglasses to block bright lights
  • Earplugs or headphones to reduce noise
  • A wide brimmed hat to block visual information
  • Hand wipes to clean up sticky things
  • Chair pads to make hard chairs or bleachers more comfortable

3. Know your child’s signs of overstimulation

Keep an eye out for signals that your child is overwhelmed. If you spot any of these signs, check in with your child. It may be time for a self-soothing strategy or a break. Some signs of overstimulation are:

  • Rocking
  • Covering eyes or ears
  • Tensing muscles
  • Arm flapping
  • Showing aggression or irritability
  • Complaining about sensitivity to noises, touch, or other senses
  • Refusing to interact with others
  • Exhibiting low energy

4. Use self-soothing strategies

It’s good to establish self-soothing strategies with your child so that they know what to do when they start to feel overwhelmed. Different strategies work for different kids, so you and your child can work together to find out what helps them cope best. It may be anything from counting to ten, deep breathing, using sensory toys or fidgets, hugs, or taking a walk. When you find strategies that help your child cope, you can practice them together so that they have a game plan when they start to feel overwhelmed.

5. Be prepared to take them out of or change the environment

We all need a break from stressful situations sometimes! When you go to an outing or event, try to find a quiet place with less stimulation where you can take your child if they get overwhelmed. This may be a private room, a bathroom, or even a quiet corner where it is less crowded, noisy, or bright. Tell your child the plan so they know they can take a break if they get overwhelmed. If you notice they are starting to get overstimulated and can’t soothe themselves, stay as calm as you can and take them to the location you talked about. When you’re in a calmer space, their self-soothing strategies may be much more effective.