Sensory overload is the overstimulation of one or more of the body’s five senses, which are touch, sight, hearing, smell, and taste.
Sensory overload can affect anyone, but it commonly occurs in those with autism, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), sensory processing disorder, and certain other conditions.
Keep reading to learn more about sensory overload, including the symptoms, causes, and potential treatments.
Sensory overload happens when one or more of the body’s five senses become overwhelmed. It can happen, for example, in a crowded restaurant, when the radio is too loud, or when a passerby is wearing a strongly scented perfume.
In these situations, the brain receives too much information to be able to process it properly. Sensory overload leads to feelings of discomfort that range from mild to intense.
Everyone experiences sensory overload at some point in their lives. Some children and adults, however, experience it regularly. For these individuals, everyday situations can be challenging.
Even going to the school or office cafeteria can lead to sensory overload. The sounds of people talking loudly, strong smells of food, and flickering fluorescent lights can all trigger feelings of being overwhelmed and uncomfortable.
The symptoms of sensory overload vary from one person to another. Some people may be more sensitive to sound, for example, while others may have issues with different textures.
Common symptoms include:
- inability to ignore loud sounds, strong smells, or other types of sensory input
- a sense of discomfort
- anxiety and fear
- extreme sensitivity to clothing or other textures
- feeling overwhelmed or agitated
- loss of focus
In children, the following signs can indicate sensory overload:
- anxiety, irritability, and restlessness
- avoiding specific places or situations
- closing the eyes
- covering the face
- placing the hands over the ears
- the inability to converse with others or connect to them
- running away from specific places or situations
Sensory overload occurs when the brain struggles to interpret, prioritize, or otherwise process sensory inputs. It then communicates to the body that it is time to escape these sensory inputs. This message causes feelings of discomfort and panic.
In some people who experience sensory overload regularly, such as those with sensory processing disorder, there may be a biological basis for these processing problems.
One study indicates that children with sensory processing disorder have quantifiable differences in their brain structure. The researchers suggest that this points to a biological underpinning to sensory processing problems.
However, not everyone who experiences sensory overload will have these structural differences.
A 2018 report states that 1 in every 6 children has sensory processing difficulties. In certain groups, the prevalence ranges from 80% to 100%. These groups include children with:
- autism spectrum disorder
- fetal alcohol syndrome
- Down syndrome
Sensory overload in children can be difficult to recognize, especially if there is no co-occurring condition.
Parents and caregivers may attribute the symptoms to “bad behavior” because it can cause children to run away from situations, throw tantrums, or appear irritable and restless.
In children who do not have a related condition, sensory overload may simply occur because the brain is still developing.
Parents and caregivers should learn to recognize both the triggers and the signs and symptoms of sensory overload in children. Swift action can reduce the impact on the child and help manage their reactions.
Conditions that have an association with sensory overload include:
Autistic people commonly perceive sensory input differently. According to Autism Speaks, in 2013, the American Psychiatric Association added sensitivity to sensory input to the list of diagnostic criteria for autism.
Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
In people with ADHD, sensory inputs compete for attention in the brain, which may trigger sensory overload.
Understood.org, a nonprofit organization, suggest that certain types of sensory information, such as the texture of food or sensation of clothing, are more likely to cause sensory overload in those with ADHD.
PTSD causes people to become hypersensitive to their surroundings, which can lead to sensory overload.
Sensory processing disorder
This neurological disorder occurs when the sensory information that a person receives causes them to respond differently than someone who does not have sensory processing issues.
People with some other conditions may be more likely to experience sensory overload than the general population. These other conditions include:
As sensory overload is not an official disorder, it is not possible to get a formal diagnosis.
However, many doctors and healthcare professionals recognize sensory overload, especially in autistic people and those who have ADHD and other related conditions.
Before speaking to a doctor about sensory overload, it can be helpful for a person to keep a diary of any sensory overload signs, symptoms, and triggers.
Triggers can include specific stimuli, such as loud sounds and bright lights, as well as factors such as tiredness and dehydration.
The doctor will probably ask several questions about the triggers and events surrounding episodes of sensory overload. In doing this, they hope to understand more fully how a person experiences sensory overload
A doctor may refer a child with suspected sensory overload to a developmental pediatrician or an occupational therapist for further evaluation and treatment.
There is no specific treatment for sensory overload. Generally, the aim is to help people with frequent episodes of sensory overload to be able to plan for them and manage their reactions.
Occupational therapy may be helpful for children who experience sensory overload. Occupational therapists can help people make changes to their environment to minimize the frequency or severity of sensory overload.
Medications for co-occurring conditions may also reduce sensory overload.
In autistic people, for example, the medication aripiprazole (Abilify) may be helpful.
Many people can manage episodes of sensory overload with specific techniques and home care. Individuals can try:
- keeping a diary of signs, symptoms, and triggers of sensory overload
- avoiding triggers of sensory overload, such as loud concerts or events with flashing lights, where possible
- asking others to help reduce sensory inputs, such as by turning down bright lights or opening a window when strong smells are present
- identifying safe spaces to escape to when sensory overload occurs at school, work, or other venues
- staying near the exit when at a concert or party so that it is easy to leave if necessary
- talking to teachers, colleagues, friends, and others about sensory overload and asking for their support in reducing sensory inputs
- taking regular breaks and getting enough rest and sleep
- drinking lots of water and eating a balanced diet
When it comes to children with sensory overload, parents and caregivers can:
- help their child avoid triggering situations
- give the child the words to explain what is happening and how it feels
- validate the child’s feelings and experiences
- inform teachers of the possibility of sensory overload and ask for their support
- seek help from a doctor, occupational therapist, or another specialist
Sensory overload can happen to anyone, but it is more common in autistic people and people with ADHD, PTSD, and certain other conditions.
It causes feelings of discomfort and being overwhelmed. Moving away from sources of sensory input, such as loud sounds or strong smells, can reduce these feelings.
People who experience regular episodes of sensory overload should see their doctor. A doctor can provide support and recommend treatments or management techniques. They can also determine whether there is a co-occurring condition that requires treatment.