Sensory Overload: What it Looks Like and How to (and not to) Respond
By: Michelle Zeman
Picture this: you and your three children are out at an amusement park enjoying a summer day. The amusement park has flashing lights coming from all different directions, there’s a giant crowd of people waiting in line for their favorite line, and there’s all kinds of noises going on. The loud noises can range anywhere – from musical performances by various artists, to the rides being loud, to people screaming on the top of their lungs prior to making that dip into the next turn. It is also so unbearably hot that you must stop for water at every chance you have.
Perhaps for your neurotypical children, the amusement park is the best place ever because it is a way for them to have some fun. However, your neurodivergent child is so overwhelmed by all the background noise going on. The screams may not be that loud to anyone else; however, to your neurodivergent child, the screams are piercing. The wait times may not seem that long to anyone else; however, to your Autistic child, they are waiting forever. Your neurotypical children may be having the time of their life given all the circumstances; however, your neurodivergent child is having a hard time keeping up with all the environmental variables. It is so miserable for your neurodivergent child that they are unable to communicate what’s going on. They might scream, cry, and overall, just get out of the environment.
This is what is known as sensory overload. The way that sensory overload is defined looks very different amongst people. If I were to write a definition, it would be this: when the person’s environment can become so overstimulating to a person’s senses (touch, smell, sound, sight, and taste) that the person can lose control.
How might someone respond to someone dealing with sensory overload? While it depends on the environment, there’s appropriate and inappropriate ways to deal with sensory overload.
The Do’s of Responding to Sensory Overload
The Don’t’s of Responding to Sensory Overload
It's important to remember that a variety of people deal with sensory overload. How we treat people who have this makes the biggest difference. Please always choose compassion and kindness; this will get you so much further than you realize.
Hi ACE fam!
With a New Year brings new beginnings. We are thrilled to introduce you all to our newest BCBA, Michelle Zeman! Michelle joined the ACE Greenfield family in January of 2023. She has been board-certified since 2016 and in the field since 2013. Michelle's mission for ACE is to provide compassionate care and empower clients and the families she serves. Being on the Autism Spectrum, Michelle is passionate about patient-centered programing and quality of treatment for all.
We are thrilled to have a BCBA that brings substantial knowledge in patient-centered, trauma-informed treatment. Michelle brings knowledge from all areas of ABA: the patient-end and the clinical end. MichelleZ volunteered to do an interview to discuss her new role, her background, and her vision!
How did ABA impact you growing up?
"ABA impacted my life as I was able to communicate as a result of receiving ABA. I have no doubts that I am right where I am to this day because of ABA. Though I had vocal language, I spoke in "gibberish", meaning my language was not fear nor functional. My support team helped me communicate vocally in order to receive the things I was wanting, even if they knew what I was wanting by my body language or approximations to verbal requests."
How long did you receive ABA services?
"I received ABA services for about a year, from age 3-4. I had an Autism Coach (which in today's world is called a BCBA - Board Certified Behavior Analyst) who came into my home to work with myself and my mother. My mother was extremely active in treatment and was trained on all of the goals so that she was able to implement them outside of treatment times. My mom was essentially my own RBT, which was absolutely amazing. She learned a lot about evidence-based methods and autism in general."
When did you receive an ASD diagnosis?
"I was diagnosed in February of 1995 at just 3 years old. My mom tells me that receiving that diagnosis was extremely difficult at the time - mostly due to autism not being diagnosed as much at the time in comparison to today and difficulty finding a provider that took the time to do so."
What hardships have you faced in terms of the ASD diagnosis that you feel ABA has helped you overcome?
"The hardship I faced in terms of the ASD diagnosis really was after I received ABA services. I will say, ABA did not prepare me to navigate the stigma that was attached to an autism diagnosis. "Autism" and "Disabled" are two words that were extremely stigmatizing for me in a way that I feel I was shoved into a category of people that are thought of as less. I felt like I had to keep my diagnosis a secret in order to be given the same treatment as others. But, In 2021, I finally have been able to embrace my diagnosis to prove that I am just as able as the person next to me and that my diagnosis does not define me. My mission for myself and the patients that I serve is to advocate for them and teach them about autism and to be proud of it, not run from it."
What made you want to become a BCBA?
"I wanted to become a BCBA because I feel that with my experience, I can help the clients that I work with on a much larger scale. I am involved with advocacy through Florida Partners in Policymaking and I have been using the tools I've learned from there to help my clients to advocate for themselves."
How long have you been in the field?
"I have been in the field for almost 10 years now! I started out doing residential work as a Direct Support Professional and then transitioned to the same companies outpatient ABA clinic; where, funny enough, is where I met and worked alongside ACE's CEO, Michelle Sears! I have been a Board Certified Behavior Analyst since 2016."
What is your primary focus as a BCBA, having the background that you have in all aspects of the ABA world?
"It's hard to choose one specific focus because I am so deeply passionate about all things ABA, so I'd like to break it down between families/clients and staff members.
Trauma-informed care, compassion, and advocacy are primary focuses of mine. At the end of the day, families are with their children the most. I want the families to have no doubts or hesitations they can, and should, advocate for themselves and their child. Compassionate, trauma-informed care is also just such a priority for me because I am a guest in their lives and I am the one who has the great privilege to serve them., but families should know that they have the autonomy over the treatment, having consent for every intervention at all points.
Staff Members --
Collaboration, Humility, and Compassion are my key focuses for this area. I was once a RBT, just like them, and I know how hard the job can be. I know that RBT's are on the front lines of treatment. It's my mission to ensure they are always supportive, they are heard in their program ideas, and that they are involved in treatment decisions. I make a priority to get RBT feedback on any new skill acquisition and behavior plan idea."
If there's anything you could go back and tell your past-self, what would it be?
"I would tell myself to embrace my diagnosis, because being autistic doesn't make me any less. It IS okay to be different. It IS okay to be nuerodivergent. Most importantly, I would not be who I am without my nuerodivergency. I would have started loving myself and understanding myself much more if I had learned this much earlier on."
ACE - Autism Center for Enrichment
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.