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Sensory Overload in Spectrum and Executive Functioning Disorders

We are almost constantly at the mercy of our ever-fluctuating sensory reactions, with our emotional valve systems either fully open, or fully closed. We are rarely at an emotional calm, within our own person. We tend to have delayed response times, while we process information, and can have some difficulty organizing and retrieving thoughts, words, answers, or responses.

Hyper-reactive or Hypo-reactive to Stimuli

We need to understand and manage sensory overload and "under-load."

We can't be cured, but we can learn to cope!

What is fair?

Fair is not equal.

Fair is not treating everyone the same.

Fair is doing what needs to be done,

so that everyone gets what he or she needs.

To some, we appear to be odd, difficult to read, aloof, or unique, but we are really foundering in a world of unwritten rules in social interactions. We sometimes "make up our mind' and it is almost impossible to sway us, or "get us to understand' another's perspective. We may abruptly leave a conversation, sometimes in the middle of a sentence, and we may announce that we are "never coming back!'

We are almost constantly at the mercy of our ever-fluctuating sensory reactions, with our emotional valve systems either fully open, or fully closed. We are rarely at an emotional calm, within our own person. We tend to have delayed response times, while we process information, and can have some difficulty organizing and retrieving thoughts, words, answers, or responses.

Emotions are a sensory issue, as much as taste, touch, sound, light, proprioception, or other more commonly included sensory issue. Emotions hit us like a sack of potatoes, we are able to relive memories in context with vivid mental images of acute detail, and usually those memories are distinctly negative in nature, a failure of some kind. We know we will "fail' on any given day; it is simply a matter of when and how bad.

All emotions are treated with some suspicion, with the distinct exception of anger. Anger we know, anger we can see, anger we can trust. Joy is fleeting, and can be too overwhelming. Sadness is all encompassing and almost unbearable. When the valve is wide open, emotionally, sadness can be catatonic. When the valve is fully shut, emotionally, sadness is: numbness, hollowness, head pressure, and avoidance.

Compliments are a double-edged sword. Briefly, it leads to a warm feeling in our chest, and our faces feel flushed. Embarrassment is an enormous sensory overload issue, and we can become embarrassed at a comment, glance, or shrug. Embarrassment can sneak in through a compliment, correction, look, or other seemly innocuous gesture, leading us to a valve wide-open systems overload. It is acutely uncomfortable, and as we experience this, we tend to look for the emotion we can trust: anger. What this may look like to those who are not on our team:

Walking away in the middle of a conversation

Storming off to our room

Quitting a job, or being unable to go back

Refusing to answer the phone or open the door

Getting mad at a compliment, or shutting down and refusing to work or interact

Tears or tantrums with little or no provocation

Multiple moves or job changes

Physical violence


Abruptly changing behavior

Picking, tattling, arguing

Individually, if someone on our team is acting out, being difficult, having a tantrum, or becoming avoidant, rest assured that something in his or her environment, job, social interaction, classroom, or home is not meeting the definition of fair. Something is not being presented in such a way that he or she can understand, some trust issue has been broken, or other sensory overload is occurring.


If you change your routine unexpectedly, you will fling the emotional valve wide open or fully shut! Change is overwhelming to our sensory systems, and can be devastating. Change in the home, school, workplace, dinnertime, teachers, level of noise, crowded spaces, or invasion of personal space leads to high anxiety, frustration, and acting out or acting in.

Acting out: tantrums, hitting, kicking, swearing, yelling, giggling uncontrollably, loud voice, etc.

Acting in: withdrawal, quiet, stomachache, headache, crying, masking, etc.

Acter-outers tend to appear to be more defiant, difficult, oppositional, and take more risks

Acter-inners tend to have more physical symptoms, child eating disorders, anxiety disorders, obsessive-compulsive issues, depression, and tend to be more vulnerable to abusive relationships

We have difficulty understanding or trusting facial expressions, body language, and social cues. Sometimes we have difficulty following a conversation or directions, give us prompts and visual cues. We have difficulty "getting' jokes, sarcasm, or multiple meanings, explain it to us simply and with concrete examples.

Avoid abstracts! Saying, "Be nice," is too vague. Saying, "Listen to what the other person is saying, make one comment that is of a similar nature, and then you can talk about..." is concrete, we get the rules, and we can follow them! We have a distinct difficulty with reciprocal language. It might not occur to us that we should ask how someone's day is, or how his or her family is, because it isn't a functional part of our day. Understand that we don't often hang out in the break room, because we can't be social creatures, not because we don't want to be social creatures! As children, we want to make and keep friends; it is just that we don't know how!

What can you do?

As much as possible, "listen' to the behavior. What is causing her to avoid school, friends, or food? What is causing him to fight at recess? Why does he get a stomachache everyday at lunchtime?


Try to manage external levels of stimuli as much as possible (low levels of noise, movement, change, or other "trigger')

Try to ignore acting out unless specifically harmful to self, others, or property

Consider a cuing system to identify and avoid "triggers' before overload occurs

Sensory outlets such as quiet, safe area (never use as a punishment)

Fidgets, squishy toys, heavy blanket or vest, gum, chewies, crunchy or chewy foods, a tub of white rice, core strengthening seats, or other, which helps to calm psychomotor agitation or anxiety

Break down tasks literally, visually, verbally, physically, realistically, and simply

Remain calm and consistent

Use schedules, journals, planners, and calendars

Be aware of change in routine and prepare, practice and role play

Create a crisis plan, in the event that sensory overload cannot be avoided, and stick to it

Clothes, toothpaste, paper grain, Popsicle sticks, pencils, socks, tags, tastes, touch, smells can all cause sensory overload, be aware of needs, and address accordingly

Teach, model, and practice social skills

When all else fails, find humor in the situation and downplay and social blunder

To me, "curing autism,' would be eliminating a fundamental part of my children and myself. "Curing autism' is an understandably lofty goal, unless you consider the alternative, which is increasing understanding, awareness, and empathy in a less than tolerant society and promoting acceptance, empowerment, and diversity as the true meaning of fair.

Michelle is a school psychologist and medical technologist, who volunteers as a parent advocate, and provides professional development to parents and educators, regarding Individuals with Disabilites Education Act (IDEA), Improving Learning for Children with Disabilities (ILCD), Hidden Disabilities, and Response to Intervention (RTI). She is a proud veteran of the Air Force and previous school board member. Michelle has Asperger's Syndrome, Attention Deficit with Hyperactivity Disorder, and learning disabilities. She is a doctoral candidate in Education Leadership at NorthCentral University.

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