This article may contain affiliate links.

sensory overloadIt’s important to be aware of a client’s sensory needs no matter what clinical service you are providing, whether it’s occupational therapy, speech therapy, physical therapy, or psychological therapy.  For anyone who sees children in their office and has an environment that is over stimulating, consider these ideas to create positive environmental changes to reduce sensory overload.

When I was first working with children in a mental health outpatient setting, my primary goal was to create a child-friendly environment.  I wanted to ensure that I had all of the supplies that would be useful for therapy. Over time, my shelves became stacked with toys. There were stuffed animals and puppets, as well as, doll houses and action figures. I had toy medical kits and Legos.  My office was overflowing with art supplies. My walls and cabinets were adorned with wonderful children’s drawings.  In addition to that long listing, I also had a library of children’s books readily available.  The children’s books were often used in therapy sessions but were also available to entertain children while I counseled parents.

About fifteen years ago, I began to specialize in working with children on the autism spectrum. If the toys and books were out and visually available, I found it was difficult to set limits on the use of the toys.  Many of the children would perseverate about playing with the toys until I made it available to them.

I soon discovered that the toys were not helpful to children with sensory isms.  I could not use all these accumulated toys to encourage therapeutic change.  I was finding that children with sensory isms were not as able to make use of the metaphor of play as well as the neurotypical children were able to.

The toys inadvertently had become a way for the child to avoid working on therapeutic change.  This made the therapeutic environment, not quite therapeutic.  My clients with autism or sensory isms were struggling with emotional difficulties and this therapeutic environment was very over stimulating for them, thus halting any chance of therapeutic progress.

Hide the Clutter & Reduce Sensory Overload

Upon realizing the overstimulating impact on my clients, I set out to do a big clean out of my office. Many of the toys and books were removed.  The ones that stayed were put away and out of sight in cabinets.  This way, I  could take the toys out one at a time when clinically indicated.

Even the drawing supplies were put out of sight.  These were pulled out for the child only when it would be helpful and not harmful to the goal of the visit.

Although I loved all the pictures that the children had drawn for me, I took them down off the walls and put them away in a folder.  I must admit, I did keep a couple of favorite pictures on the wall.  I ensured that there were very few visible toys or children’s books.

I also ensure that my desk is always neat and tidy.  If necessary, I put paperwork away in a desk drawer so the child does not see the clutter.  RDI therapist, Tyler Whitney from Idaho, once told me that the ideal therapist’s office is an office where the therapist is the most interesting thing in it!  That concept really resonated with me. It might be interesting to reflect on how a home could be set up so that the most interesting things in the environment are the people!

Take away – one key way to help a child stay calm in your office, is to have a calm, organized environment that is not overwhelming.

Offer Alternatives to Stimming to Calm Sensory Overload

I like to offer a basket of interesting fidgets for the children to try out and practice using in place of stimming.  I do keep my fidgets out of sight and only pull them out as needed.

I bring the fidgets out with the goal to offer them as an alternative to stimming such as picking at their skin or nails.  However, I am carefully observant to ensure that the fidgets are therapeutically useful vs. becoming a distraction.

I like to offer fidgets as a model for parents.  It is an intervention strategy that has the potential to be far more effective than simply telling a child to stop doing something with their hands.  Instead, just quietly hand the child a fidget as an alternative.

Explore More >> What is “Stimming” and Why is it Important?

The 101 on Fidgets

Dim the Lights to Quiet Sensory Overload

I am lucky to have a window in my office.  If the overhead fluorescent light is disturbing to a client, I can turn off the overhead light and just use the natural lighting in my office.

If you do not have a window, consider a small lamp that can be used if the overhead light is too much for someone.

Explore More >> What is a Sensory Defensive to Do in an Over Stimulating World?

Share Helpful Ideas for Sensory Overload

If you have a good setup in your therapist’s office, taking a child’s sensory needs into account, please share them with us on Special-Ism’s Facebook page.  We would love to hear from you!