You walk around the mall with your child, getting some shopping done and trying to resist the temptation of sales (or even junk food in the food court) when suddenly the bass line of loud music comes blaring from the next store over. Noisy crowds of people rush by you, carrying loud crinkling shopping bags and bursting with explosive laughter, hitting you as they walk by in all directions. You’re able to shrug this off as pretty standard and keep going. But when you turn to your kid, you see the panic and pain in their eyes, and you know a meltdown is coming.
It’s not their fault.
It’s sensory overload.
About 5 percent of the population is estimated to suffer from some form of sensory processing disorder. Considering that everyone needs to shop at some point, there are tremendous numbers of people out and about on a daily basis who are struggling to cope with sensory overload.
Here’s a really good video from the National Autistic Society illustrating what this feels like for an autistic child suffering from overload. But note: Lots of other people find themselves suffering from these symptoms as well. It can be hard to relate if you haven’t experienced sensory overload, but trying to understand the experience is a powerful first step in helping your loved ones.
Sensory overload can hit adults as well as children. Fortunately, you can work to understand the potential triggers and your loved one’s experience so you can help support them. Because here at RetailMeNot we work so much in retail spaces, we wanted to put together this guide to help children and adults who may be susceptible to sensory overload in malls, shopping centers and other stores.
What is sensory overload, and who gets it?
Sensory overload is the result of an abundance of sights, sounds or smells occurring at once. It can trigger a meltdown that resembles a temper tantrum.
Although anyone can experience instances of sensory overload, it most consistently occurs and recurs in patients with autism spectrum disorders and has also been observed with fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, migraines, generalized anxiety disorder and even schizophrenia, triggering the worsening of symptoms for varying amounts of time. Its specific cause is unclear; it is likely the result of abnormal brain activity resulting from specific triggers, which vary according to the individual brain.
What exactly is sensory overload? It’s the overstimulation of one or more senses, making it too difficult for an individual’s nervous system to process. Some examples of sensory overload include:
- Audio: loud noise simultaneously emanating from multiple different sources, such as competing vendors shouting during peak mall rush hour time
- Visual: bright, flashing lights in an environment with lots of movement, such as a store display of LCD panels broadcasting music videos
- Scent: strong aromas, such as the kind of you get when walking past a perfume or candle store
- Touch: excessive tactile stimulation, such as the sensation of being touched by lots of people in a crowd or feeling lots of clothing brushing on your skin
- Some combination of the above: If there are a great number of sights, sounds or even smells occurring at once, it can result in a meltdown, which can look like everything from a temper tantrum to a complete loss of visible affect.
What does sensory overload actually feel like?
Thanks to social media and current technology, we can all understand a bit more about what the experience of sensory overload during a shopping experience is like:
- A group of people talking might sound like amplified noise, even if everyone is speaking at a normal volume. Different tones or pitches might sound more intense than others, so that people might sound as if they’re yelling. The familiar experience of the disconcerting screech of nails on a chalkboard? That feeling may be evoked by something like a squeaky metal shopping cart, paper/plastic shopping bags crinkling, music or loudspeaker announcements overhead, excited children and crying babies or checkout registers beeping and dinging. Particular times of the year like Black Friday might be particularly problematic. Most people in good health take for granted just how much noise they filter out on a daily basis.
- The crowds during a shopping experience can set some individuals off, triggering feelings of claustrophobia and resulting hypervigilance. Even an accidental brush by a stranger can feel like a cause for alarm, triggering shortness of breath, a feeling of being unable to escape and other symptoms of a panic attack.
- Children suffering from tactile sensitivity miss out on a chance to explore the world, as kids do so much through touching and mouthing because everything feels like “too much”: too cold, too hot, too slimy, too hard, etc. Everything from wearing clothes to eating food can be a nightmare; the heightened exposure to sensations of touch that happen as part of a casual stroll in the mall, then, are too much.
- Sufferers from chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia are known to suffer pain at lower levels of stimulation than the average population, but they are also more sensitive to sensory stimuli in general. They will become extremely exhausted very quickly in environments that are saturated with stimuli.
- Migraine sufferers report feeling similar sensations of sensory overload, as reported by those with autism, becoming super irritable and wanting to “curl up in the fetal position and shut down.” Sensitivity to light and sound are commonly reported as signs of a migraine episode.
- This collection of videos from Mashable tries to help those who don’t have autism spectrum disorder understand what sensory overload can feel like for those who do. For example, the third video simulates shopping at Walmart, and shows just how harrowing of an experience that can be.
- The reaction to sensory overload can be extremely embarrassing for the person going through it, who might be highly aware that their reaction is not considered “normal,” and the resulting anxiety can make the episode even worse.
What are the signs of sensory overload in children?
A child covering his eyes could be a sign of sensory overload, as the child is trying to shield himself.
As any parent can tell you, kids can struggle to describe what’s wrong when they’re not feeling well. It can be particularly difficult for children to express their experience of sensory overload. This is even truer for children who are already coping with disorders on the autism spectrum. Here are some symptoms to look out for, though it’s important to remember that the specific symptoms vary greatly from child to child:
- Sudden refusal to participate any further in an activity
- Surges in irritability or anger directed at objects or strangers
- Hyperactivity and overexcitement in response to stimuli
- Complaints about sounds that seem normal to others
- Covering of eyes or ears to shield self from exposure
- Fixation on a particular object or type of stimulus, e.g., a specific color like “pink,” which then makes the child focus only on items of that color in an attempt to drown out the rest
You might recognize any number of these symptoms from your daily life, including routine shopping trips gone haywire. Fortunately, there are ways you can work with your loved one to help.
Tips for helping your loved one cope with sensory overload while shopping
Be mindful of the signs of sensory overload while shopping with your child. Ask yes or no questions if an episode occurs.
Trying to understand the experience of sensory overload is a powerful first step in helping your loved one as well as preparing you to identify the specific triggers and struggles they go through while working to ease it, possibly even preventing it from flaring up.
Having some handy action items on hand to avoid sensory overload as well as accommodate someone experiencing it can help assuage the episode and keep everyone calm.
- Of course, the first thing to do is to be aware of the triggers. If your loved one can’t articulate what sets them off, monitor them; consider keeping a journal and documenting the circumstances behind their overload, how long each episode is, and what seems to aggravate/quell the experience. Are certain stores or areas of the mall worse than others?
- Autistic people often have distinct motor mannerisms that they use when they’re feeling severely overloaded, so keep an eye out for that.
- If possible, discuss the triggers. If the sufferer can be aware of the triggers as their overload is developing, employ a safe word that the sufferer can tell you in the moment to prevent their symptoms from getting worse. If they can feel the symptoms escalating, using the safe word can signal you both to regroup in a more comfortable area.
- Consider constructing your shopping trips to avoid these triggers. If you need to enter a stimulus-heavy area, consider leaving your loved one at home, or bring a family member/friend to accompany your child to a “quieter” area.
- Bring earplugs or noise-cancelling headphones, if they can handle them. Unless they have tactile sensitivity, hold the hand of your child or loved one to make sure you don’t lose them. Earplugs can be a very private way to cut out a lot of the stimulation and help the overload fade.
- Calmly alert your loved one before you take their hand during an episode of sensory overload. Whatever you do, don’t startle them further.
- Remove scents from the environment. Don’t go into heavily scented shops, which can trigger panic attacks or even migraines. At home, try to avoid heavy fragrances. Use essential oils if needed, sparingly, and focus on calming scents like lavender and chamomile.
- Ask yes or no questions. Yes or no questions are easier to process or respond to during an episode of overload.
- Be mindful of whether certain times of the year or times of the day are worse than others. Peak holiday season might be a particular aggressive time of year to go shopping, especially if you’re sensitive to noise or light. Weekend afternoons also tend to be jam-packed with stimuli.
- Keep shopping trips short, at least starting out. Work your way to longer excursions as your loved one becomes more comfortable with shopping experiences.
- Give those who suffer from sensory overload time to recuperate. They will need some time away from sensory input immediately after an episode. Consider putting your child on a sensory diet if overload episodes seem frequent.
- Accommodate a loved one who cannot come out with you during a severe bout of sensitivity. For example, chronic fatigue syndrome and migraine sufferers sometimes simply cannot handle going out at certain times. In fact, research shows that they already tend to “push” themselves and under-report symptoms. If a loved one says they are ill, take it seriously and do not make them feel guilty—it is not their fault.
- Be patient and kind. Sensory overload is not something that can be helped; it can be profoundly debilitating, disruptive and embarrassing. Do not overreact to the episode, including any fits of irritability—your loved one, by definition, cannot handle it. More than anything, your loved ones need to feel your support so that they can get through these incidents.