Following on from the section on sensory overload from the Autism Strategy session at the SEND Group Annual Conference last week here are my top 7 tips to avoiding sensory overload.
- Noise cancelling headphones or earplugs. Some block out as much sound as possible making the environment very quiet. Others filter sound (background noise) making it generally quieter but still enabling you to have conversations.
- Mindfulness. Sensory overload can lead to meltdowns, shutdowns or anxiety attacks. Using grounding techniques such as mindfulness can involve quite a lot of trial and error to see what works for the individual. A widely used technique is; acknowledging 5 things you see, 4 things you feel, 3 things you hear, 2 things you smell and 1 thing you taste.
- Adults need to be aware. Staff who work with a young person need to be informed of what they find challenging. When a young person is in sensory overload, they will probably not be able to explain what is happening, it is important the adults are able to support. It may also be useful for trusted peers to know as well.
- Distraction. A young person may be comforted/distracted by something such as a fidget toy, special object, an activity (colouring, sudoku etc). This distraction can be used to draw the brain away from the busy environment and allow the person to focus on their work or it can be down in a quiet space as part of grounding and calming.
- A quiet space. A young person may need to have an agreed quiet space that they can escape to when things are too much for them. They could have a time out card, an agreed person/place to go to. It is important that the space should be somewhere they feel safe, or they will not be able to regulate.
- Try to identify common triggers or times when it is most challenging. This could be unstructured times like breaks, between lessons when corridors are busy. Reasonable adjustments such as leaving a little earlier between lessons, not having to queue in corridors could be all it takes.
- Time to recover. Sensory overload may not always be obvious but the effect it has on the brain and body can be exhausting. Allow time to rest and recover, engage in a special interest, watch or listen to something comforting, stim. These types of activities will all aid recovery from sensory overwhelm.
It is important to remember that different things work for different people. Get to know your student, work with them, work with their family and you will find the best ways to support them.