To those with sensory sensitivities, everything can potentially be a source of stress. But “everything” is not a helpful list of things to look for.
Here are examples of common stressors that I always look for first, and tips to make them better. Use what works for you.
Having the TV, radio, or podcasts on in the background all the time can be an overwhelming sound experience, especially when the programs include sudden, loud noises or angry or distressed voices, like on the news or action-oriented shows. Try turning these off, or listening through headphones, to see if your child’s body relaxes.
Even when turned off, your child may be able to hear the faint electrical whine of the device on standby mode. Try unplugging it from the wall when not being used.
Digital clocks are also a great replacement for the incessant ticking of some clocks, which may be driving your child nuts.
If doorbells make your kid jump six inches, try putting a note on the door not to ring because of a sleeping baby. There’s no guarantee anyone will notice it or comply, but it’s worth a try.
If the vacuum is too loud, plan to do that particular chore when your child is out of the house. The same thing with any other chores that you know will trigger your child.
In the kitchen and at meals, the sound of plates or cups being placed on the hard surface of the counter or table can be as intense as a drill next to your head. Personally, it makes my stomach clench up. Try putting down towels or cork trivets on the counter, or soft placemats on the table, to soften the blow.
CFL and other fluorescent lightbulbs often cause headaches or generalized irritability. LCD bulbs are almost as bad. And halogen bulbs are usually too bright. Try going back to incandescent bulbs, or opening curtains for natural light as much as possible. Also, try lower wattage bulbs. Too much light is also a common source of stress.
Cluttered rooms or messes can make it difficult for us to make sense out of what objects are there, and which ones are important or meaningful, and that can raise our stress level. Keeping common areas tidy helps—and some autistic people love keeping things tidy and are more than happy to help out the family in this way if they are not coerced or bribed into it or, counterintuitively, rewarded or praised for it—let it be their idea and don’t make a big deal out of it.
Washing hands, changing clothes, and brushing teeth, can all be overwhelming sensory experiences. Try biting down hard off and on during the process, to activate another sense (pairing a sense that is in overload with one that is well regulated helps calm the whole system), or add a pleasant aromatherapy essential oil to the room, or humm through it, or jump, or do all of the above.
The feel of certain fabrics can be a constant irritant. If there are regular fights over getting dressed, look for which clothes are better than others. If there are a couple of good ones, buy multiple copies and stick to them. A more limited wardrobe is better than daily fights. And always wash new clothes before wearing, to wash out the sizing, which can be a skin irritant.
Tags in clothes drive many people with sensory issues nuts. Try cutting out all tags, or buy clothes without tags.
The edges of loose clothing brushing lightly against the skin can also feel nerve-racking. Personally, this drives me bonkers, so I put my socks on before my pants so that the edges of the pants don’t flutter against my ankles.
The feel of sheets and blankets on the bed can also be a huge factor in being able to sleep. The height or density of the pillow (either too high or too low, does it fluff up beside the head?) can all cause challenges getting to or staying asleep. If you suspect these may be an issue, let your child help pick out ones they like better.
Back to the kitchen, odors from foods can be overwhelming to some. If you notice your kid avoiding the kitchen when you’re cooking, this might be the case. Let them stay as far away as possible until others have dissipated, or eat in another room.
The smell of many cleaning products, soaps, laundry detergents, fabric softeners, and just about all scented bath products, can all be overwhelming. Try switching your current brands to ones that are unscented, hypoallergenic, or simply have a different scent.
Then there are the obvious scents, like perfumes, colognes, air fresheners, cigarettes, fish, even some essential oils. To test if these are an issue, remove as much of these as you can, set out bowls or boxes of baking soda to absorb some smells (Febreze has its own smell which may be an irritant), and see if your child relaxes and behaviors improve.
Here’s a tip: the smell of cigarettes on clothing or other items can sometimes be removed by putting the items in a sealed plastic bag with a bar of Dove or Ivory soap and left for a couple of days.
Sometimes it’s not the intensity, but the particular “flavor” of scent. For example, most people find lavender pleasant, but for some it can be aversive, so try switching to a different scent. Including your child in picking out which scent (or no scent) can save a lot of money in trial and error.
Many flavors or textures may also be too intense, which can lead to picky eating. Your kid make gravitate to foods that they are comfortable with, or than have a high fat, salt, or sugar content, because those provide the brain with a quick boost of energy when they may be feeling really tired by the sensory onslaught of day-to-day living.
Instead of fighting over foods, try letting them eat what they are willing to eat and instead put your energy into reducing their general stress load. After a while, you may notice they are more open to trying new foods. Give it time though, as this could take a while.
This feels like a long enough list for now. I’ll make another one of these around school and one for shopping. What other scenarios do you want me to cover?