How can I help a child with autism who overreacts to sensory stimuli?

To identify whether a child is overreacting to sensory stimuli, you must observe their responses to different sensory experiences. Here are some signs that your child is sensitive and has sensory avoidance

  • Extreme avoidance: The child consistently avoids specific sensory experiences or environments, such as loud noises, bright lights, crowded spaces, touch, or playground equipment.
  • High-arousal responses: The child may become easily upset, anxious, or agitated in response to certain sensory stimuli.
  • Physical discomfort: The child may show physical signs of discomfort, such as covering their ears in response to loud noises or cringing at certain textures.
  • Withdrawal and refusal to participate in activities: A child may try to escape from a sensory environment that is overwhelming them or may give up on an activity.

Sensory avoidance is common in children on the autism spectrum and will impact their development. However, they can be improved with understanding and tailored support.  To help them thrive in a diverse social environment, we must provide a supportive and adapted environment based on their individual differences.

  1. Sensory-friendly environment: Create an environment that minimizes sensory triggers. Examples may include dimmer lighting, quieter areas, a simple and warm welcoming room environment, comfortable seating, or sensory-friendly tools.
  2. Sensory diet: Sensory breaks and adjustments are essential for children with autism. Overwhelming senses can be turned off and given a break, and the amount of sensory input can be adjusted to help the child manage the sensory input appropriately. (ex. Adjust sound volume, pitch, light in the room, amount of verbal language input, toys, etc.)
  3. Gradual exposure: Gradually introduce sensory stimuli in a controlled manner so that the child becomes more familiar with them over time. You can also combine the child’s favorite sensations with sensations that the child avoids to modulate them positively.
  4. Differentiated support tailored to individual needs: Understand the child’s specific sensory needs and develop strategies to support the child in various settings.

We encourage you to work with your child’s Floortime provider to understand your child’s sensory processing challenges and implement strategies to support developmental play.

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