Living with autism | Sensory overloads

sensory overload

In a previous blog we discussed receiving a diagnosis of autism and some considerations for daily life and communication. In this blog we look at another key aspect of how someone living with autism may experience the world and how friends and family members can adapt their environments to help with autism and sensory overloads.

Autism and sensory sensitivity

Hyper or low sensory ‘load’ issues are one of the most common experiences an autistic person faces, and these inputs understandably can affect a person’s behaviour.

Autistic people may have an over/under-sensory sensitivity, this means they may find being touched or certain smells, temperatures, tastes, sounds, colours, and lights hard to deal with. For example, a background noise like a radio which other people may block out without even trying, can become unbearably loud and distracting for an individual with autism.

This video from The National Autistic Society helps us understand how sensory overload to sound, light, and sight may feel for an autistic person (Warning: this video contains flashing lights, bright colours and loud noises):

This video is just an example to highlight how everyday environments may be overwhelming to a person living with autism, but sensory overloads can extend beyond the things we hear and see.

Smell: Some people have no sense of smell which can cause problems with personal hygiene. Whereas some people experience intense sense of smell which means especially strong smells e.g. perfume can become unbearably overpowering and they may avoid certain people if this is the case.

Taste: Some autistic people may crave bland foods or very strong-tasting food. People with an under-sensitive taste may crave intensely flavoured foods and may eat non-edible items like dirt, stones, grass, metal, faeces – this is known as pica. People with an over-sensitive sense of taste may find some flavours and textures overpowering.

Touch: For people living with autism an over-sensitivity to touch can feel painful or uncomfortable, they may dislike having anything on their hands and feet and have difficulties brushing and washing their hair. Clothing and food textures may also feel uncomfortable. If they are under-sensitive they may hold people tightly, have a high pain threshold and in extreme cases may self-harm.

Balance: Someone who is under-sensitive to balance may feel the urge to rock, spin or swing to feel sensory input. Others may be over-sensitive and have difficulties with activities where we need to control our movement, difficulties stopping and may experiences motion sickness more easily.

Motor skills: Someone who is over-sensitive to body movements may have difficulties with fine motor skills and struggle to tie their shoelaces or fasten buttons, they may move their whole body to look at something. Others may be under-sensitive and stand too close to others or bump into people, they may also find it hard to navigate through rooms and avoid obstacles.

Here are some tips from National Autistic Society on how to help manage and prevent a sensory overload

Be aware: Look at the environment to see if it is creating difficulties. Can you change anything?

Be creative: Think of some positive sensory experiences.

Be prepared: Tell the person about possible sensory stimuli they may experience in different environments.

There are many resources to help manage sensory input and subsequent behaviours. Click the senses to learn more about the effects of hypersensitivity or hyposensitivity to sightssoundssmellstastestouchbalance and body awareness, and ways you could help.

One of the key ways everyone can help is to raise awareness of autism and help remove the stigma. Raising awareness can help other people understand autism and create a world that works for everyone inclusive of autistic individuals, below are some resources for how you can help.

People living with autism differ significantly in their support needs. Some people are able to live independently but others may need support with daily living or 24 hour specialist support. You can find out more about how to access community care for adults living with autism by visiting The National Autistic Society website or to find out how Northern Healthcare support people living with autism click here.


Click here for access to lots of free age-appropriate learning resources to teach students more about autism.

For resources for workplaces to learn more about autism and how to better support their colleagues, click here.

For more information about how you can fundraise or run a campaign with the National Autistic Society, click here.

You can also get more information about autism from:

  • The Autism Helpline: 0808 800 4104
  • Minicom: 0845 070 4003 (open from 10am to 4pm from Monday to Thursday. And 9am to 3pm on Fridays)
  • The National Autistic Society website


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