Autism, Anxiety, and Sensory Overload: A Sensory Key

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Autism and anxiety are often linked.

The Anxiety and Depression Society of America says that 40% of young people with autism experience anxiety.

Did you know that managing the sensory experience is key to helping autism and anxiety?

To help with your understanding of the sensory experience, learn more about your eight senses.  Yes, eight not five, you can read more in this blog we wrote about the eight senses.  For now, know that you see, hear, taste, touch, smell, and have a sense of movement, balance along with your internal organs.

Many people, including people of all ages with autism, have difficulties with their senses.

Autism and sensory issues are very much linked.  For instance, autistic people experience sensory sensitivity and sensory overload.

Anxious girl hugging her cat.

The anxiety sensory key.

Anxiety contributes to sensory overload.  Besides, the reverse is true too:  sensory overload makes people anxious.

For example, you worry and become anxious about going out to an event or a place that is busy, noisy, and bright.  In particular, if those things bother your senses.

Alternatively, noise exposure, especially for a long time, can bother you and make you more anxious.  Think about how you feel when the smoke detector goes off because you burnt your toast.  Especially when you cannot get it to stop.  During that time, you can think of nothing else.  You cannot simply ignore it.

When you are anxious, you often have less bandwidth to cope with extremes in your senses.   For instance, think of a time you were worried about something.  You might even say something like, “I just want peace and quiet”.

However, it is important to know that sensory overload is also experienced by people who do not also have anxiety or autism.  Some people experience sensory overload daily.  In contrast, some people only experience it in certain circumstances.

For example, you might only experience sensory overload when you are tired.  After a long day of traveling abroad and little sleep, when you arrive somewhere new, you might feel overwhelmed by the sounds, smells, sights, and experiences there. Nevertheless, following a good night’s sleep and recovering from jet lag, you love to travel and experience someplace new.  That feeling of being overwhelmed, overstimulated was just temporary, normal sensory overload.

More than just autism and anxiety.

On the other hand, some people experience sensory overload because of an underlying disability, disorder, or difference in their brain.  Moreover, they experience sensory overload more often.  Finally, it is more disruptive to their daily life.

Did you know that sensory overload is more often associated with autism, Asperger’s, the Highly Sensitive Person, anxiety, fibromyalgia, and PTSD?  However, there are many more things that can make people experience overstimulation in daily life.

Having a disorder, disability, or difference does not mean you will automatically experience sensory overload.  To clarify, it just means you are more likely to.

So your child has autism and anxiety as underlying conditions.  Furthermore, they experience sensory overload.

Now, what do you do?

How to calm a child with sensory overload.

This is the most oft-asked question by parents, “How to calm down a child with sensory overload.”  Moreover, these strategies work with children but also with anyone of any age.

Infographic illustrating 4 ways to manage autism, anxiety and sensory overload.
Infographic describing ways to manage autism, anxiety and sensory overload.

4 ways to manage autism, anxiety and sensory overload:

  1. Go to sensory-friendly events and places.
    • sensory-friendly movies
    • museums with sensory-friendly visiting times
  2. Choose sensory-friendly service providers and businesses.
    • grocery shopping during quiet hours
    • a sensory-friendly dentist
  3. Manage your child’s sensory experience by making it shorter.
    • arrive late and leave early!
  4. Reduce your child’s sensory experience.
    • bring ear muffs, the kind that blocks out noise.  Not the kind that covers your ears in winter.
  • Going to a sensory-friendly event or place helps with sensory overload.  It does so because the event or the place reduces the sensory experience of the people visiting.  Examples might be turning off flashing lights, or turning off background music.
  • Choosing sensory-friendly service providers or businesses helps with sensory overload.  They also reduce the sensory experience of their customers.  Therefore, a dentist might provide noise-blocking headphones or a weighted blanket.  Alternatively, a concussion clinic might have a calming room for its patients.
  • Manage your child’s sensory experience by making it shorter or breaking it up.  Some amusement parks, arenas, and airports have quiet rooms or quiet spaces.  Find them and plan to take breaks away from the busy, noisy, and bright.
  • Finally, you can reduce your child’s sensory experience by having them wear noise-blocking headphones that block out sounds.  You can wear sunglasses indoors or even outdoors on a cloudy day.

Seven things to know about sensory overload:

  1. You have more than five senses.
  2. You have at least eight senses: see, hear, touch, smell, taste, move, balance and interoception.
  3. Sensory overload means that the senses are overstimulated and overwhelmed.
  4. There are disorders, disabilities, and differences that make it more likely for someone to experience sensory overload.
  5. Sensory overload can cause many distressing symptoms.
  6. Sensory-friendly events, places, services, or businesses help prevent or manage sensory overload.
  7. Sensory overload can occur in one or more of the senses at the same time.

For an autistic person, a different sensory experience is part of the diagnosis.  That is to say, the formal diagnostic criteria use words like hyposensitivity and hypersensitivity.

We all have some degree of sensory sensitivity.  Subsequently, when someone has a sensory impairment, sometimes called a sensory disorder or sensory processing disorder, they might show characteristics described as hyposensitivity or hypersensitivity.

Hyposensitivity.

Let’s talk about hyposensitivity first.  Hypo means low or below normal.

Hyposensitivity means that your brain receives information from the senses less or with less intensity than other people do.  So, a child with a sensory processing disorder, where hyposensitivity is a characteristic, might constantly touch things.

In this example, hyposensitivity, or being less sensitive to touch, causes the child to seek out sensory input excessively.  Sometimes a child likes to cuddle with a soft blanket and rub it to go to sleep.  Importantly, that is not a sign of hyposensitivity or part of a sensory processing disorder.

However, imagine or a child who repeatedly goes around a room.  A child who touches everything without an ability to stop. Or stop upon request.  That is a problem.  It is interrupting learning and play.  It is interrupting typical development.  As well, it is a sign of a sensory processing disorder.

It is important to know that hyposensitivity as part of a sensory processing disorder can be dangerous.  For example, if a child is hyposensitive and does not feel pain like they should.  That child might not feel a cut or a burn when they are hurt.  Hyposensitivity is not a part of a sensory overload but it is serious.

Hypersensitivity.

On the other hand, hypersensitivity is part of sensory overload.  For example, a child who has difficulty with the feeling of clothing and thus has difficulty getting dressed shows hypersensitivity.  As a result, that child can experience sensory overload from clothing.

It is also important to know that a toddler refusing to get dressed because they are exerting their independence or would rather play or do something else is not a child experiencing sensory overload.  That is not hypersensitivity.  That is normal for toddlers.

Hypersensitivity and hyposensitivity are opposites.  So where hypo means low or below.  Hyper means over, above normal or high.

Children and adults who are hypersensitive experience sensory overload.  Therefore, a child with hypersensitivity feels things from one or more senses too much.  That child will often avoid them.  And when exposed to too much of a sensory experience become overwhelmed.   A child experiencing sensory overload might become upset, cry, and have a meltdown.  Moreover, a child experiencing sensory overload may not be able to explain what they are feeling.  They will not be able to necessarily explain why they are upset.

Sensory-friendly clothing for sensory overload, autism and anxiety.

Sensory-friendly clothing is helpful for both children and adults who experience sensory overload.  In the instance, where the hypersensitivity is from the sense of touch.

Sensory-friendly clothing has things like no seams and no tags.   It is often very soft.  Children and adults who experience sensory overload may feel a tag, or a seam, roughness in a piece of fabric.  They likely even feel a thread sticking out that other people do not notice at all.

Some clothing is identified as being sensory-friendly.  Some mainstream clothing already incorporates no tags for example without even being labeled sensory-friendly.

Sensory overload and autism.

People often wonder if sensory overload and autism are the same things.  Sensory overload and autism are different, but as we’ve discussed, they are linked.  Sensory overload is not the same as autism.  However, people with autism often have sensory issues.  They are more prone to experience sensory overload.

Many different words are used concerning sensory overload, in particular with autism. Words like sensory sensitivities, hypersensitivity, sensory issues, sensory difficulties, sensory challenges, and sensory overload.  Moreover, these terms are used interchangeably but they do and can mean slightly different things.

Hypersensitivity and hyposensitivity are both used as part of the diagnosis of autism as cited above.  However, it is important to know that hypersensitivity or hyposensitivity alone is not an indication of autism.  Therefore, a child with autism might have hypersensitivity.  Or that child experiences sensory overload as part of the diagnosis.

To clarify, not every child who has autism experiences sensory overload.  Likewise, a child who experiences sensory overload does not necessarily have autism.

People with autism have other symptoms like poor social skills, poor emotional skills, difficulties or delays in communication, or restricted interests.  Sensory overload can be part of the difficulties for an autistic person.

Frequently asked questions about sensory overload and autism.

  1. Can a child experience sensory overload and not have autism?
    • Yes, a child can experience sensory overload and not have autism.
  2. Can a child experience sensory overload and have autism?
    • Also yes.  For some children, a sensory disorder, in particular hypersensitivity and sensory overload is part of their autism.
  3. Can a child have autism and not experience sensory overload?
    • Yes, some children have autism but do not experience sensory overload at all.
  4. Is sensory overload and autism the same thing?
    • No. Sensory overload, hypersensitivity, and autism are not the same thing.
  5. Does sensory overload always happen with autism?
    • No. Not every child with autism experiences sensory overload.
    • But more children with autism experience sensory overload than children who do not have autism.
  6. Is sensory overload just a type of autism?
    • No, sensory overload is different from autism.
    • Sometimes they overlap.
    • Sometimes they do not overlap.
  7. Is autism at the type of sensory overload?
    • Autism is not a type of sensory overload.

Autism, anxiety, sensory overload, and the sensory key, in summary.

So the senses and sensory experience can add to anxiety.  But going to sensory-friendly events or places helps.  So choose sensory-friendly providers or products.  In particular, that helps people whose anxiety is made worse by what they experience from their senses.  And people with autism, who are also more likely to experience anxiety can have sensory differences.  Again, choosing sensory-friendly environments and experiences can help ease sensory overload when that is a problem for the autistic person.

Learn more about different types of sensory-friendly environment and experiences such as:

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