Helping Individuals with Special Needs Manage Sensory Overload

Categories: ASD and DD, Adult-focused; ASD and DD, Child-focused

By Margaret Walsh, M.A., BCBA

Many people living with intellectual disabilities (ID) are sensitive to certain noises, lights, smells, and tactile sensations. The flashing lights and sirens of an emergency vehicle, the smell of a greasy burger, or the intense heat and light of the sun can make it difficult for someone with these sensitivities to enjoy an outing in the community with family members or friends.
It is impossible to predict what a person with special needs may encounter when he (or she) is out and about. Even so, there are ways to support and help him cope with unpleasant experiences.
First, help the person identify what bothers him. Work together to make a list of all the things that make him feel uncomfortable in the outside world. That way, he can create a plan for what to do when he finds himself in these situations. The plan will help him identify the “tools” he will need to cope when he is confronted with sensations that are hard to tolerate.
For example, if he has difficulty with particular sounds, provide him with something that helps block out noise. IPods, noise-cancelling headphones, and earplugs can be very helpful in a loud environment. Whatever the tools are – clothes to protect him from the sun, or a crossword puzzle to help get through the tedium of waiting for a bus – make sure he doesn’t forget them when he goes out. These items are vital to his ability to function fully in his community because they reduce the impact of unwanted stimuli.
Once he has a plan, teach and practice it with him before going into the community together. When possible, discuss the plan on an ongoing basis to figure out what is working and what is not. Then you can make any necessary adjustments. It’s okay if the plan is basic; the most important thing is for everyone involved to be familiar with it and able to carry it out when needed.
For the person with ID, having a well-understood strategy to fall back on in difficult moments can reduce the anxiety he may experience out in the community. Because he may forget what he needs to do when he is stressed, it may be helpful to provide him with a reminder. For example, give him a small card that lists the steps to a relaxation technique. Carrying the card will help him remember to use these skills when he becomes anxious. These reminders should be inconspicuous but easy to access. Some people with ID will place these kinds of things in everyday items like wallets or backpacks.
With consistent support and planning, people with ID can learn to cope and manage when the sights and sounds of their communities become challenging for them. With your help, community outings can become less stressful and more fun.
Margaret Walsh, M.A., BCBA, is the Clinical Director for the western Massachusetts division of the May Center for Adult Services. She can be contacted in West Springfield at 413-734-0300 (ext. 262) or at
May Institute is a nonprofit organization that is a national leader in the field of applied behavior analysis, serving individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities, brain injury and neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. Founded more than 65 years ago, we provide a wide range of exceptional educational and rehabilitative services across the lifespan. The May Center for Adult Services in West Springfield provides day and residential services to adults with developmental disabilities living in western Massachusetts. For more information, call 800.778.7601 or visit