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Coping with multisensory overload

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    Every child is different, and the same goes for how children with autism react to different stimuli. However, there are signs you can look out for in order to help relax your child and reduce their stress.

    Occasions of intense multisensory input

    Your child holds it together at school and over-responds at home

    The school day is full of multisensory input, placing great demand and stress on the nervous system. This is especially difficult for those who struggle with sensory modulation and self-regulation. The child tries so hard to follow the rules of the classroom and to please the teacher and staff, as well as meet the social expectations of peers. When the child returns home from a long day of stress on the nervous system, the child may simply ‘melt down’ in an environment where they feel safe and not judged by others.

    • Respect that this is a true sensory signal that the school day was over-whelming and incredibly challenging
    • Try not to lean towards the theory of “why do they do this at home and not at school, doesn’t that mean they can control it”.
    • Offer a sensory retreat to help unwind and unload the sensory input from the day, e.g. a pop-up tent and sensory toys
    • Provide full body deep pressure touch
    • Provide opportunities for proprioception
    • Decrease the amount of stimulus for at least one hour once your child gets in from school

    Difficulty coping with Supermarkets

    A supermarket is a multisensory experience and is not a child-friendly environment in nature. There are bright fluorescent lights, strange and strong smells, loud sounds, beeps and overhead speakers.

    • When at all possible, plan your shopping trip when your child is at school or home
    • If you do need to take your child in a supermarket, take a sensory toolkit with you including mouth toys, fidget toys etc.
    • Wear noise cancelling headphones or an MP3 player to reduce the sounds
    • Allow for the use of a floppy hat or sunglasses to avoid uncomfortable social interactions and all of the bright lighting
    • Engage your child in the shopping as much as possible such as lifting and placing the heavy items in the car or being in charge of the shopping list and ticking the items off

    Problems with Self-regulation

    Very Difficult to Calm

    If a child has difficulty with self-regulation, they will need sensory tools and strategies to help them calm. The ability to self-calm relies on adequate amounts of sensory input via vestibular, proprioceptive and tactile systems.

    • Provide an oral sensory tool
    • Provide a weighted blanket
    • Provide vibrating toys
    • Provide a sensory retreat, e.g. a pop-up tent
    • Deep pressure touch such as bear hugs
    • Proprioceptive activities

    Impulsive Behaviour

    A child who is impulsive is likely to have difficulty with self-regulation and possibly under registers sensory input. The impulsive nature is often due to sensory seeking and the overwhelming need to meet the sensory input. A child who has sensory processing difficulties finds it hard to demonstrate safety awareness and judgement.

    • Safety first – be aware of this impulsive nature when playing outside or around flights of stairs or other possible dangerous situations. A child who is impulsive is unlikely to respond to a verbal command.
    • Frequent and regular doses of movement/proprioception facilitate self-regulation and can decrease impulsivity.
    • Limit screen time to no more than two hours per day in total
    • Encourage deep breathing on a regular basis
    • Encourage oral motor activities

    A child who runs away/flees unexpectedly

    A child who runs away or flees can have more than one sensory explanation. If the child is a sensory seeker and craves sensory input they may be in a ‘sensory tunnel’ and cannot resist running to whatever the sensory temptation is. A second explanation is that a child has a lack of judgement and safety awareness. A third explanation may be that the child is in a state of fight or flight or sensory overload.

    • Be very aware of this sensory challenge and respect it as such. Do not assume it is a behaviour or attention seeking
    • Assess each situation you are in and decide whether it is safe for the child to walk independently or needs to be holding your hand
    • Provide your child with a weighted rucksack that has an attached handle on it. This provides your child with calming proprioceptive input as well as you being able to keep hold of them and reduce the risk of them running away.

    Sensory Signals

    Hand Flapping

    This sensory signal is often misunderstood. Flapping of the hands is often a sensory anchor which is calming to the brain. Doing this provides proprioception to the arms and hands which is typically organising and soothing for the nervous system.

    • It is okay to let them do it
    • Encourage regular doses of proprioception and joint compression by activities such as bear walking, jumping etc.
    • Use of a sensory box with various tactile items in, including resistive items
    • Provide regular dose of proprioception and deep touch to the arms and hands

    Toe Walking

    Toe walking is often a signal that the child is trying to self-regulate. Toe walking increases proprioceptive feedback and in turn promotes self-regulation. This can become a habit to the child due to muscle memory and how the brain learns specific gait patterns.

    • Encourage jumping activities such as trampoline, marching, hopping and skipping
    • Encourage walking up hills
    • Encourage climbing slides

    Bangs Head

    This provides proprioception to the joints of the neck. This is obviously not a good idea as it can be harmful to the brain if done too hard or too often. This movement of the head also provides vestibular input which can be calming and organising.

    • If your child does this on a regular basis a soft helmet may be of benefit
    • Provide frequent regular doses of touch to the head
    • Try a rocking chair
    • Encourage therapy ball activities, e.g. rolling over it on their tummy
    • Try the use of a trampoline

    Useful Equipment

    Equipment for Proprioception/Vestibular

    • A move and sit cushion can be placed on a chair or on the floor this allows subtle movement while remaining seated. Note when using this on a chair it is important that the child’s feet are flat on the floor to provide stability.
    • Gym balls or a gym ball chair can give your child movement when participating in static activities such as computer games or watching television.
    • Gym ball activities can also improve core strength.
    • Heavy pillows and old T-shirts filled with heavy stuffing material and sewn shut can be used for your child to sit in amongst or have on their lap.
    • Weighted lap pads can also be used.
    • Therapy putty can provide proprioceptive input to the finger joints which can have a calming influence as well strengthen hands (yellow therapy putty is advised).
    • Theraband offers resistance and gives proprioceptive feedback to muscles and joints (yellow theraband is advised).

    Tactile Activities

    • Tactile items that vary in visual appearance texture and resistance can offer a calming influence, improve tolerance of touch or reduce a child’s need to touch items excessively.
    • Fidget/tactile toys if chosen carefully can be effective in helping a child maintain focus.

    Your child may not exhibit all of these behaviours as children react differently, but introducing some of these tips can aid you in supporting and comforting your child.

    If you have any concerns about your child’s sensory behaviours, please contact one of our clinicians. 

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