How to Deal with Overstimulation in Teens with Autism

Overstimulation occurs when there is “too much” of some external stimulus or stimuli for a person’s brain to process and integrate effectively. This leads to an unpleasant sensation of being flooded and an impulse to escape the stimulus. Overstimulation for teens with autism can be sensory when a teen is overwhelmed by external stimuli such as loud noises or bright lights. It can also be caused by intellectual stimuli where teens with autism become unable to focus on what matters and instead become overwhelmed by all the details. 

Common reactions to overstimulation include:

  • Rocking
  • Covering eyes or ears
  • Tensing muscles
  • Arm flapping
  • Showing aggression or irritability
  • Complaining about sensitivity to noises, touch, or other senses
  • Refusing to interact with others
  • Exhibiting low energy

Helping Your Teen Cope with Overstimulation

When your teen is overstimulated it can be stressful for both them and you. Below are a few suggestions on how to deal with overstimulation:

Plan Ahead: Teens who are overstimulated intellectually can benefit from having a plan. For many with autism, new environments or changes in the routine can be very challenging. Preparing your teen for new situations is the best way to help them manage the stimuli. For example, if you’re planning to go shopping with your teen, talk to them about what the store will look like. Explain that there may be lots of people around. Tell them exactly what you will be shopping for and when the trip will be completed. If they understand that once you have bought new sheets for their bed, you will be leaving and going back home can help them manage their anxieties around how long the outing will last. 

Avoid Triggers: If you know that loud noises overstimulate your teen, try to avoid putting them in situations where that noise is unavoidable. A teen who experiences too much external stimuli would not do well at a large sporting match or a concert. Understand your teens limitations, and if you’d like them to experience a soccer game, try watching one at home or find a field where they can watch from the comfort of the car. 

Practice Self-Soothing: It is helpful to establish self-soothing strategies with your teen so that they have strategies to use when they begin to feel overwhelmed. For some teens it could be using noise cancelling headphones or a weighted blanket. For other teens it could be learning how to ask for help or request a break. When you discover what techniques work best for your teen, you can practice together so they feel comfortable using those self-soothing strategies in the moment. 

Have an Exit Strategy: Feeling trapped in an overwhelming situation will only make teens feel worse. When your teen is planning to have an experience outside of their comfort zone, make sure they understand that they can leave whenever they’d like. For some teens, it may take practice to build up their tolerance of stimuli. If they’re joining an after school activity, it may be helpful to talk to both them and their teacher to set up a plan when they participate in gradually increasing increments over time. 

New Focus Academy Can Help

Our approach focuses on helping students gain independence in daily activities and their social lives. Subsequently, students develop confidence and self-esteem as they find success in accomplishing activities independently. As they do this, they start to feel empowered, thus stopping this feeling of being a “mistake” in its tracks. Teaching the skills necessary to live an independent life is at the core of our program. By focusing on our students’ unique strengths, we help them accomplish meaningful goals and work towards independence. For more information please call (844) 313-6749.

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