Recognising Sensory Overload

Last week, I went to pick up some Chinese food at our local Chinese restaurant. While I was there, I noticed a little girl, probably aged about six, standing next to the lobster tanks near the door. She had her eyes tightly closed, her teeth were clenched and her hands were covering her ears. I have no idea whether or not she had autism but clearly she was in a lot of sensory pain.

Unnoticed Sensory Pain
Of course, being a complete stranger, there was nothing I could do. Any interference on my part would simply make matters worse. The last thing an over-stimulated child needs is an approach from a total stranger, particularly a male one.

So, I looked around to see if I could see the girl’s family. Perhaps they were noticing and perhaps there was going to be a happy ending after all, but sadly, everyone else at the restaurant was engaged in animated conversation and was totally oblivious to the girl’s plight.

Increased Stimuli on the Senses
I picked up my order and left the restaurant as the rest of the night played out like a “train wreck” in my head.

In about half an hour, the band would come on, exacerbating an already bad sensory situation. With several senses already overloaded, the girl would be reluctant to engage more and would probably withdraw even further into herself.

Note that although the main overload at the time I saw her was probably sound she had her eyes closed too. This is clearly an attempt to reduce the assault on her other senses.

Consequences to Sensory Overload
How keen do you think this girl was going to be to try new foods with different textures and tastes?

Not keen at all in this environment.

Now, being a parent, I can relate to the other side too. It’s difficult when you rarely get out and when you do, your kids make the night “hell” for you. Then there’s the cost of the uneaten food and if you’re with company, you have to put up with some nasty stares and snide comments. You dare not leave early because you know that you’ll become the next topic of conversation and that your parenting skills will surely be called into question.

Back to the girl; I know how this night will pan out for her too. She won’t eat, won’t socialise and will “ruin” her parent’s evening. In doing so, she’ll provoke their anger and later a punishment, such as the temporary loss of a toy. At some time during the evening, there will be the strong possibility of a meltdown.

Behind Sensory Overload
Look at her side of the story, she’s been taken to a place which causes her pain, is cajoled into ordering something that she can’t possibly eat under the circumstances, and then punished when she doesn’t eat. Even worse, the blame for the evening is likely to be put squarely upon her shoulders – it’s enough to make anyone melt down.

Of course, this is all speculation, but I’ve seen it so many times before. It could all be avoided too if her parents could learn to recognise the early signs of sensory overload and if they were willing to give it the response it requires.

You know that if your child was in a lot of physical pain, you’d quit the restaurant immediately to deal with it. Why is it so hard to accept that dealing with mental pain is just as important?

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About Gavin Bollard

Gavin is a dad who discovered that his own differences were due to Aspergers while researching his son’s diagnosis. His blog, Life with Aspergers, delves into the day-to-day details of Asperger's and related conditions while maintaining a focus on the positives.