Sensory Overload

About this resource
Reviewed: 2013

I write a bimonthly blog about inclusion of children with developmental delays in every-day activities, whether at child care, home, or out in the community. I hope that both family members and other care-givers will find this helpful. Why blog about this? About 7 of every 100 children are diagnosed by the age of 5 with developmental delays; these may be pervasive (in all areas of development) or limited to one or two domains, such as language, fine-motor skills. Young children often don’t know that they have delays or differences from their siblings or other age-mates. They are curious and as eager to learn, be loved, and play as all children. They may lack certain skills or abilities that, when accommodated, don’t limit their participation.

We often talk about access, participation, and supports as the key to inclusion of young children with developmental delays or disabilities. The goal of my blog is to address these three components of inclusion around everyday activities and events. My knowledge and experience come from raising a son, born early and at a very low birth weight, and from my years as a professor of child development and special education.

I remember the first time I took my niece at age 4 to a Disney movie with her brothers and cousins. My niece had a diagnosis of developmental delay with sensory integration issues. We had access to the community movie theater, we had the active participation of family, and we thought we had sufficient support—several adults to keep up with the five children we brought. We didn’t anticipate her reaction, however, to the lights going out and the sudden and loud sounds and bright images associated with the previews. She was screaming to get out within 30 seconds. I took her out to the lobby, and she clearly had no interest in going anywhere but home. In fact, she said, “I’m not ready!”

You may have encountered similar reactions to novel activities. Children react if they face “sensory overload”—too much stimulation to integrate the visual and the auditory in particular. Looking back, we learned a lesson. My niece, wasn’t prepared for the sudden darkness, loud noise, and very large screen. She needed more support initially. The support, in this case, would have been a change in the movie environment (lower volume, lights on) and probably a seat on the aisle in the back of the theater so she could take breaks from the action. Going to the movies became a treat a few years later when she was able to manage the noise, the visuals and the dark.

Today, many movie theaters offer a “lights on” morning movie with lowered sounds so children who have autism, pervasive developmental delays, or sensory integration issues are not overwhelmed (at least not as much). Ask your local movie theater manager if they have “Lights On” movies for young children or if they will give it a try. Let us know if you have other suggestions.

Susan Fowler

Dr. Susan Fowler, professor of special education at the University of Illinois, will take one of our popular Tip Sheets and provide specific suggestions that benefit children with developmental delays or disabilities. Most of our Tip Sheets work for all families, but some can use “tweaking” or additional tips to support children with disabilities.
Biography current as of 2/2017