Sensory Overload in Children


The environment we live in can often be loud, fast-paced and chaotic – and that can cause us to feel overwhelmed or exhausted. When that happens, we want to escape somewhere more calming and quiet. We might take five minutes to breathe, go for a lie down or even go on holiday to escape the noise. Luckily for most, this feeling doesn’t occur too often, but what happens if you experience these overwhelming feelings on a daily basis and find it difficult to escape them?

Dr Richard Anderson, Head of Learning and Development at High Speed Training, said: “Sensory overload is when your brain takes in more information than it can process, causing you to enter ‘fight, flight or freeze’ mode. It’s also referred to as overstimulation, because it occurs when your brain becomes overwhelmed by external stimulation of the five senses – sight, sound, touch, taste and smell.

“For some children – particularly those with ADHD, autism or another type of neurodiversity – sensory overload caused by overstimulation can be frightening, confusing and a hindrance to daily life. As a parent or teacher of a child who experiences sensory overload, it’s important that you understand what might trigger it and how to help a child who may be struggling.”

If a child with sensory overload encounters an environment where any of their senses are overwhelmed, then their brain unconsciously begins to panic and, in a split second, prepares them for fight or flight. This means their heart rate might increase, their hands get sweaty, they become pale and they start to feel scared, shaky and unsafe. A child experiencing overstimulation may cry, get angry or withdraw – just as they would if preparing for an uncomfortable confrontation. 

Examples of situations when a child could become overstimulated and experience sensory overload include:

  • At night time when trying to sleep, if the light levels are too bright/dark.
  • In crowded rooms or tight spaces where there are lots of people
  • Anywhere there is loud noise, whether sudden or constant, like fireworks, music festivals, theatres, busy supermarkets or places with loud music.
  • Sudden, unexpected or unwanted physical contact, whether with another person or sometimes an object, and particularly on bare skin.
  • Bright lights or flashes or sudden changes in light levels, like turning the lights on in the classroom after watching a video or opening the blinds to bright sunlight.
  • Strong smells, whether pleasant or unpleasant, including perfumes, cooking smells, petrol, paint and cleaning products.
  • Sudden changes in temperature, such as if someone opens a window or turns on the radiator.
  • In any new situation with unfamiliar textures
  • In groups of people where emotions are high, such as in the playground where there’s a disagreement, a fight or someone crying.
  • When being made to eat foods that taste different to usual or have a different texture

Dr Anderson said: “It’s important to note that the sensory overload response is not a conscious decision by the child and they are not simply overreacting to a busy classroom or supermarket. 

“Sensory overload happens instantaneously and unconsciously when the brain feels threatened by the environment, and it’s not something that can be ‘fixed’. It can, however, be controlled and managed by avoiding triggers and understanding how to effectively calm the child.”

How to Calm a Child with Sensory Overload

The most important thing is to get to know the individual child with sensory difficulties. All children are different and they will all respond differently to different stimuli, so get to know your particular child’s triggers and the methods of calming down that work for them.

If you notice a child is experiencing overstimulation, it can be helpful to:

  • Remove the child from the environment. As soon as you notice that the child is getting overwhelmed, take them somewhere quiet where they feel safe and can be alone if necessary.
  • Provide the child with something familiar that you know they enjoy, like a book, their favourite music, a cuddly toy or blanket. Giving them something familiar can give them reassurance and something to focus on.

Be positive, reassuring and compassionate. Don’t shout or tell them off for causing a scene or judge them for overreacting, as this will likely make them feel even more overwhelmed. Instead, be patient with the child and offer them love and support.

There are also some practical actions you can take to manage each of the sensory triggers:

Light/Sight Sensitivity can be managed by giving the child a reading light or desk lamp or fitting a black-out blind in their bedroom. In some cases, sunglasses can help reduce the impact. 

Sound Sensitivity can be managed by allowing the child to wear earbuds or noise-cancelling headphones, shutting doors and windows to block out external noise and listening to calm background music. 

Smell Sensitivity can be managed by using unscented cleaning products and toiletries, removing any air fresheners and candles and not wearing perfume around the child.

Touch Sensitivity can be managed by giving the child something they enjoy the texture of to hold, providing a ‘touch box’ of items with different textures that the child can explore safely, removing labels from clothing and allowing the child to wear what they feel comfortable in. 

Taste Sensitivity can be managed by adhering to the child’s specific diet and not forcing the child to try or eat something they’re clearly not comfortable with.