Wednesday, March 16, 2022

5 Effects of Sensory Overload You Should Know About

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A look at the most common effects of sensory overload on autistic individuals and what they mean.

It's important to know how to help someone with sensory overload because sensory overload can quickly snowball into bigger issues like meltdowns or shutdowns or even burnout. 

Sometimes these bigger issues can be avoided with the right type of support for their sensory processing issues. Other times they are inevitable and will happen no matter what you do. 

Either way, you should be aware of what sensory overload can turn into. Those big sensory overload responses you might encounter.

Now, if you're parenting a younger autistic child, then you might already be familiar with things such as meltdowns. But you might be less familiar with some of the other sensory overload responses on this list such as shutdowns or masking.

So let's take a look at the effects of sensory overload, what they mean, and what they can look like. That way you know how to spot them.

The effects of sensory overload you should know about: stimming, masking, meltdowns, shutdowns, and burnout

5 Common Effects of Sensory Overload for Autistic Individuals

There are 5 main effects that sensory overload can have on autistic individuals and they can range in severity. They are also all interrelated in that some of these can lead to other more intense effects on the list. That snowball effect I mentioned earlier.

These sensory overload responses include, but are not limited to:

  • Increased stimming
  • Masking or social camouflage
  • Meltdowns
  • Shutdowns
  • Autistic burnout

5 effects of sensory overload for autistic individuals

Now let's take a closer look at each of these effects and what they mean. Please keep in mind that while these effects are most common in autistic people, they are not exclusive to the autistic population. Individuals with other related conditions such as sensory processing disorder may experience these as well.

1. Increased Stimming

It's common to see an increase in stimming when someone is experiencing sensory overload. But that shouldn't be surprising though given that stimming is used for self-regulation. That is, stimming can be used to manage and cope with all the incoming sensory information that they're receiving. It's something they do to soothe or calm themselves down.

Seeing an increase in stimming isn't necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it can be a good sign. It's showing you that your child is actively trying to self-regulate and manage the sensory information that they're receiving. It might be the clue you need to recognize that it's time to go or time to change things up before things escalate further.

Increased stimming quote

Sometimes, however, an individual might not feel comfortable stimming because of the situation or environment that they're currently in. Or maybe they've been taught that stimming = bad by specialists, therapists, or parents who have tried to diminish or eliminate stims in the past. As a result, this individual might engage in masking or social camouflage instead. Which leads me to the next effect of sensory overload...

Suppressing stims can lead to masking

2. Masking or Social Camouflage

Sometimes an autistic person might try to hide their stims or autistic behaviors as a way to blend in. They might perform or engage in a more socially accepted behavior (according to neurotypical standards at least) as a way to avoid bullying and social stigma. This is called masking or social camouflage. 

Masking is basically a social survival strategy. It can be done both consciously or unconsciously. It's also uncomfortable and exhausting. After all, it's basically hiding who you are in order to fit in. Unsurprisingly, masking can also have harmful effects on mental health and can cause burnout, as we will discuss in a bit.

In the case of sensory overload, an autistic person may mask by restraining from stimming, mimicking others, pushing through their sensory discomfort even though it's painful, and/or a variety of other things.

What is autistic masking?

3. Meltdowns

You're likely already familiar with sensory meltdowns as they are usually one of the most common effects of sensory overload. 

Meltdowns, whether you're familiar with them or not, are an external reaction to sensory overload and can often be confused with tantrums because they share a lot of common behaviors or signs such as screaming, crying, yelling, being aggressive, etc. 

But tantrums and meltdowns are two different things.

A tantrum is driven by a want or a need. A meltdown, on the other hand, is an intense reaction to being overwhelmed or overstimulated. In other words, meltdowns are the result of sensory overload. It's also important to note that meltdowns often cannot be controlled.

What is a sensory meltdown?

4. Shutdowns

Sometimes sensory overload might cause someone to go into protective mode and experience an internalized reaction instead of having a meltdown. This internalized reaction is called a shutdown. It's when an individual takes a mental break by dissociating from an event or environment.

Someone experiencing a shutdown might stop talking (situational mutism), stare off into space, withdraw, zone out, appear immobile, go quiet, and/or be unable to respond. 

What is an autistic shutdown?

5. Autistic Burnout

Autistic burnout is exactly what it sounds like. You're just burnt right out and unable to cope with day to day life. As a result, you might experience more meltdowns and shutdowns than usual. And those meltdowns and shutdowns might be much more intense.

Burnout can happen for a variety of reasons. It can occur when an individual experiences constant sensory overload or stress. It can also happen if they've had to do a lot of masking or stim suppression. 

In other words, ongoing masking, especially over long periods of time, can contribute to burnout. Burnout, in turn, can then lead to more meltdowns and shutdowns. So basically it encapsulates all the effects that have been discussed earlier on this list.

What is autistic burnout?

A Quick Recap of the Effects of Sensory Overload

When an autistic individual (or someone with sensory processing issues) - whether they're a child, a teen, or an adult - experiences sensory overload, it can lead to:

  • An increase in stimming as a way to manage incoming sensory input and to regulate
  • Masking or social camouflage as a way to fit in and appear more "socially acceptable" even though it often involves suppressing stims and/or enduring uncomfortable or painful sensory input
  • A full blown sensory meltdown, which is an intense external reaction to being overwhelmed or overstimulated by sensory input
  • An autistic shutdown, which unlike a meltdown, is an internalized reaction to being overwhelmed or overstimulated
  • Autistic burnout, which can lead to more frequent and more intense meltdowns and shutdown responses

Hopefully you found this information on these five effects of sensory overload helpful.

5 effects of sensory overload for autistic individuals

Other Sensory Overload Related Resources You'll Love

What is Sensory Overload?

Signs of Sensory Overload

How to Help Someone with Sensory Overload

The effects of sensory overload you should know about: stimming, masking, meltdowns, shutdowns, and burnout