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What is a Sensory Meltdown? The Causes and Symptoms

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What Is a Sensory Meltdown? A sensory meltdown is a condition when our brain misperceives something, wrongly interprets it and stops perceiving it at all, and gets stuck to something, neglecting all others.

The child having sensory processing difficulties displays fight or flight reactions that are named sensory meltdown. The child’s aversive behavior becomes embarrassing when in public places and some parents named it tantrums but in reality, a sensory meltdown is different from what we called tantrums. We can define sensory meltdown as;

” Sensory sensitivity in some children that cause fight or flight reaction or any kind of reaction when they get overload by sensory stimulus”

What is a Sensory Meltdown?

We can say that sensory meltdown is an involuntary response to some stimuli that is non stop even if the child receives the desired thing the reaction still proceeds and is never-ending.

Human beings have five senses through them we perceive our environment let me explain what these senses are, we see things, we hear the sound, we touch and feel the texture of different things, we smell the aroma of things, and can explain what is the smells like it is stinky and is pleasant, we can taste different things and can explain about it;

How does this happen? and how can we explain it? Simply, we all know that we have some receivers and the points that are our sensory organs that sense the outer stimuli. We all know we can smell with our nose, we listen to the sound with our ears and we can taste the food with our tongues, we can touch the things and feel it with our fingers and we can see things and differentiate different colors with the help of our eyes.

What happens if we don’t have sense organs?

We cannot perceive things and our surroundings and it will create problems for us. Similarly, if our sense organ gets over-sensitive and feels more than normal, it still creates trouble for us. In case of sensory meltdowns, we become oversensitive and our brain does not know how to perceive the stimulus. Sometimes we react to those things that we should not.

When our sense organs get over sensitive to some of the stimulus they get overloaded and in response, and we overreact to it, and that adverse reaction is called a sensory meltdown.  Now the question is who suffers from the sensory meltdown and we can say sensory overload.

What is the sensory input?

” Any stimuli that are perceived by our senses is termed as sensory input”, it can be any one of the following senses; see, smell, hear, taste and touch.

Anything that we perceive by utilizing our senses is named as sensory inputs. Human beings have a complex system and are organized systematically. Abnormality in any of its systems creates trouble.

We all have senses but some of us are different in sense perception. For example ;

  • Some children perceive the buzzing sound more loudly than the other kids because they feel difficulty in filtering the harsh sounds.
  • Some children do not get disturbed by the bright light while others get afraid.

The reason behind it is the difference in their perception. Some can filter the senses while others do not.

What are the Causes of Sensory meltdowns?

Each reaction is a response to some action and for a better understanding of what triggers the sensory meltdown? It is important to know the basic causes.

Many kinds of research were conducted to evaluate the causes and the reasons behind these sensory meltdowns. According to most evaluations, every child out of six suffers from sensory meltdowns. and The reason is they get sensory overload, but why do they get sensory overload? Let me explain it to you,  we are all different, no two peoples have the same genetic makeup, there are differences in our appearance, our likes, dislikes,  our personality, we even have different sensory processing. Some of us have certain personality traits that make us oversensitive and become a reason for our sensory meltdowns.

Some children, as well as adults, have sensory processing issues that make them overwhelmed, even some minor things make them sensory overload, for example, some kids get irritated on making eye contact. They have some issues with their fine motor processing.

23 Possible Reasons for Sensory Meltdowns

We all know that we have five main senses through which we perceive but there are eight that make us move and children cannot manage to behave normally with the difficulty in any of these eight areas;

Visionary system

Our environment is made up of different things that have shape, color, texture and we read letters, alphabet, and numbers. How we perceive our environment saves us from the dangerous things and can walk and run-saving ourselves from hitting other things coming in our way. This is all because of our healthy visual system. We see things and our brain interprets the information accurately, as a result, we get our surroundings. But children with a poor visual system show fight or flight reactions toward their surroundings.

Auditory system

Our auditory system is also called “our hearing system” . The main function of this system is to process the sound and make us understand what we have heard. Our olfactory system is made up of two subsystems and these are;

The peripheral auditory system

It involves three parts of our ear, the outer, middle, and the inner part of the year. The main function of this part is to perceive the sound and transfer it through the auditory nerve to the central auditory system.

The central auditory system

The central auditory system consists of different auditory nuclei that transmit the auditory signals to the cortex that interpret the information and process accordingly. The central auditory system processes the auditory information at different levels. It involves interpreting the intensity of sound, how low and loud it is. Also locating the source of the sound from where it is coming front or the back of the head, and what is the frequency and pitch it has.

It is a complex system and involves multiple pathways and miraculously at each level our brain processes the information. The breakdown and damage in the system can create lots of problems. We cannot maintain our balance during walking and running when our auditory systems have problems. So children having auditory processing difficulties cannot behave normally and get sensory meltdowns.

Olfactory system

Our olfactory system involves the nose and nasal cavities. Our nasal cavities’ upper part has a membrane that is known as the “olfactory mucous membrane”, which has receptors that sensory neurons that transfer the signals to the brain that interpret it and help us to sense it. 

Dysfunctioning any one of the parts involved in the sense of smell can cause abnormality and our reaction to the smell will not be normal.

Gustatory system

We can taste different things and can judge how much sweat, sour, bitter, spicy, and salty food is. We can assume that bitter ingredients or food have some poisonous element in it and we do not eat it while sweet things indicate that it is nutritionally rich. How does this all happen and how do we tell what the taste exactly is? Children having sensory processing disorder might have a poor gustatory system as a result they have a sensory meltdown.

A health gustatory system not only interprets the taste of the food but there are multiple senses involved that helps in interpreting the texture of the food, smell of the food, and most importantly temperature of the food. Two senses smell and taste are involved in interpreting the taste and smell of the food at the same time. These are all located back in the central nervous system hence both are linked to our emotions. For example when we smell something and taste it the bad odor and a worse taste cause vomiting.  Now the question is how do we taste?

Our tongue has taste buds that have taste buds, our taste buds have sensory cells that are linked to nerve fibers that help in transmitting the signals to the brain that as a result interpret the information.

We can taste sweet, sour, salty, and bitter and the taste buds of all these tastes are located in all parts of the tongue equally. and the children having a problem in any part of the gustatory system cannot taste the things properly and when it gets worse they get sensory meltdown.

Vestibular system

The human vestibular system helps in maintaining balance while walking. The organs for our vestibular system are known as vestibular organs that lie in our inner ears. Our vestibular system consists of the otolith organs and three semicircular canals. Both of them are filled with fluid. The three semicircular canals end up in space named ampullae and help us in moving and bending our heads in three different directions. Each semicircular canal helps to maintain the balance of the head in one specific direction. The otolith organ that lies under this canal has a similar function.

When these vestibular organs do not work properly we will not be able to maintain our balance properly and it creates difficulty in walking. Children having poor vestibular systems get overwhelmed and are not able to walk properly and as result, they show fight or flight behavior and have a sensory meltdown.

Interoception

This sense helps in diagnosing our hunger and helps in interpreting our toilet needs. It also helps us to breathe normally. Children who cannot perceive their hunger and do not have toilet control have a troublesome interoception.

Proprioception

It is also known as kinesthesia, which is a sense in our body that helps us in perceiving the position of our body and helps us in maintaining our balance. Children that have sensory problems cannot sense their muscles and body parts properly; they cannot even know how they have moved their muscles. The receptors for this sense are located in our muscles and under the deep skin.

Children who cannot bend their muscles and face problems in walking and picking something from the flour might have problems in the proprioception of the things. Children who have sensory processing disorder have the following personality traits;

Oversensitivity

Sometimes we react to loud noises but in case of oversensitivity, we react even when we listen to slow sounds. It is because our sensory system has some problems that it never responds properly and in children who have sensory meltdowns have sensory processing difficulties their senses do not perceive the stimulus properly and as a result, they overreact to the sensory stimuli. 

Abnormality in the central nervous system

The child with sensory processing disorders has some problems in their central nervous system, their brain does not respond properly to the input and reacts abnormally. Our brain works like a computer. It processes the sensory information and processes them hence it controls all our sensory inputs and it interprets this information and you respond or react to it accordingly.  But in case of sensory meltdown, your brain perceives the sensory information but it gets stuck and never processes it properly to respond to this sensory input that causes fight or flight response.

Health problems

Sometimes young children have some other health issues that become a cause of their sensory meltdowns, and these are their nonsensory tantrums, sensory meltdowns are often linked with the following diseases. Children who are suffering from any of these diseases often experience worse behavioral problems that are mistakenly linked with sensory meltdowns.

Autism

Autism is one of these diseases. Autistic responses are sometimes linked with sensory meltdowns. autism is a lifelong disability that is a kind of developmental disorder and young children in their toddler years show the symptoms more clearly. They have some triggered responses to some or multiple sensory stimuli. In many incidents, these triggered responses that are in reality symptoms of autism spectrum syndrome are called sensory meltdowns. Autism-related meltdowns are usually caused by overloading of the sensory nervous system and it results in explosive behavioral responses.

Multiple sclerosis

Sometimes the adults suffering from multiple sclerosis show some sensory meltdown. Multiple sclerosis is an abnormality that usually affects adults ages 15-20 during these years they show some of the signs of the diseases that are mistaken as sensory meltdowns.

Fibromyalgia

It is a condition that causes acute and severe pain in the body of the victim. Sometimes the children suffering from this disease show the symptoms of sensory meltdowns, but both are different diseases.

Sensory processing disorders

It is a condition that mostly results in a sensory meltdown. The children who have sensory processing disorder usually become a victim of sensory meltdown that causes withdrawal and physical flailing(moving the body energetically in an uncontrolled manner.

Chronic fatigue syndrome

As the name suggests chronic fatigue syndrome is extreme fatigue and is a very complicated disorder, the person feels extreme pain in the body and has gotten no relief even the medication does not prove helpful in minimizing the symptoms. It affects and worsens the physical and mental activities of a person, and he feels extremely exhausted and shows extreme behaviors that are mistaken as sensory meltdowns.

Tourette syndrome

It is another condition of nervous disorders, the person having this syndrome usually has some repetitive behaviors and these reactions to some of the sensory input are considered as sensory meltdowns.

Other than these and associated problems sensory meltdowns are caused by one of the following reasons;

Nutritional deficiencies

Sometimes because of some nutritional deficiencies, children experience sensory processing difficulties. Kids in their growth years do not get the proper nutrition that is significant for their physical as well as their mental growth.

Some of these essential nutrients are protein, fats, zinc, copper, vitamin A, selenium, etc. our brain needs these nutrients in a certain amount when it does not get them from their food it results in improper brain functioning that results in worse reactions that are named as a sensory meltdown.

Our kids need protein in their growth years and it is equally important for brain growth, zinc is required for the neurotransmitter release and is also required for the synthesis of DNA, these neurotransmitters helps in transferring the information to the organs, in case of zinc deficiency in the body it causes abnormality in processing the sensory information, and vitamin and other related minerals have their specific functions, any of the deficiency creates many problems for the proper body functioning.

Pregnancy complications

Most studies have reported that any abnormality during the pregnancy can cause many problems afterward and sensory processing disorder that results in sensory meltdown is one of these problems. mother exposure to ultraviolet radiation during pregnancy and lack of proper nutritional intake, unhealthy lifestyles results in abnormal brain development of the fetus. So many children get sensory meltdowns even before their birth.

Genetic abnormalities

genetic abnormalities are another reason behind these sensory meltdowns. Many incidents have reported that abnormal brain processing results due to some genetic makeup. This genetic abnormality causes mental abnormalities that result in a sensory meltdown. Underdeveloped and dysfunctionality of some of the brain parts triggers sensory meltdowns.

Medications

Our brain experiences sensory processing difficulties because of the reaction of many medicines. Kids that take any of these medicines can have sensory processing disorders.

Environmental changes

Sometimes changes in the environment and changes in the daily routine result in a sensory meltdown. When oversensitive children are exposed to new surroundings, they show some reactions against this. Some children avoid doing new things, meeting new people, and playing new games when they are forced to do what they do not like. They behave abnormally and display sensory meltdowns.

Sometimes they get out of control. In some cases, they never know their responses can be injurious. It creates lots of problems for the parents to calm these sensory sensitive children. How do parents know that their kids are facing sensory problems? It is important to know the signs and specific symptoms that can help them to differentiate their kids from the others.

Symptoms Of Sensory Overload

Now let me tell you what a sensory meltdown feels like? And what are the conditions that trigger the sensory meltdowns? Here are the possible symptoms that can cause behavior issues.  Many parents can observe their children’s behavioral differences. They judge their child and observe that he/she is different from other kids. Many kids show these symptoms when they are suffering from a sensory meltdown.

Restlessness

Some kids get irritated even at mild sensory inputs such as flashing lights. We know that bright lights cannot trigger worse responses in children. These flight reactions are due to some sensory processing problems and some abnormalities in their nervous systems.

Concentration problems

Kids in their school years feel difficulty in concentrating and have disturbing responses. Even they cannot tell what they are feeling at the moment. When a child is asked to respond to the same thing again and again and he feels problems in doing it.  The parent took it as a temper tantrum but it has some deep roots and can be a symptom of a sensory meltdown.

Irritability

Sometimes kids have to face sensory processing challenges due to sensory overload and parents mistake it as the result of their bad parenting.

Kids get irritated when they sense some sensory stimuli and display flight or fight reactions and it is common in school-going children, they easily get irritated and lose their self-control.  These severe responses are not due to adjustment problems and are because of behavioral issues but they are the result of some sensory issues.

Stress

Sometimes kids having sensory processing disorders get stressed. Their nervous problem is the major reason behind their extreme stress. It is advised that parents should consult an occupational therapist that will be helpful.

Fear

Many kids have fear of some stimuli. They even feel afraid of making eye contact and many times when they go out and meet other people it triggers meltdowns in them. There is some problem in their sensory system that they get afraid of some mild stimulus. It is all because of their sensory-motor abnormality.

Anxiety

Anxiety is one of those many symptoms that are observed in children suffering from sensory meltdowns. Many sensory issues are linked to anxiety. According to the pediatric occupational therapist, those kids who display anxiety are facing sensory processing challenges. They get excited and overactive at some sensory stimuli. Anxiety is in reality a child’s sensory response toward the stimuli that trigger meltdowns.

These are some of the symptoms of sensory meltdowns but what are the causes that trigger these responses. As a parent, you should help your child when they are facing their children’s abnormal behaviors. Many parents lack a proper understanding of their children’s sensory abnormalities. but a better understanding can help to control the meltdowns.

It is important for preventing sensory meltdowns to have sensory meltdown awareness. Sometimes better understanding can help to reduce the fight or flight responses in children.

Sleep problems

Kids with sleep problems mostly suffer sensory meltdowns. According to a pediatric occupational therapist, poor sleep can be an indicator of poor brain processing. Kids having a poor nervous system and those who are suffering from generalized anxiety disorders get sensory meltdowns later in their lives.

Constantly moving

Constant and continuous movement is another sign of sensory issues and the children displaying the sudden movements in their body get sensory meltdowns afterward.

Playing roughly

Children who lack interest in play and they like to play the same game every time and refuse any new toy and get overwhelmed by the sight of the new toy can have a sensory meltdown.

Tolerating pain

Sometimes some kids have high tolerance levels. they can tolerate the pain and even extreme pressure the reason behind this tolerance can be sensory processing disability. They never properly sense their muscles so they cannot perceive the pain.

Having a limited diet

Children having trouble with their gustatory system cannot like to eat different food and refuse a new food in their meal because they are facing trouble in their taste buds.

Sensory overload

Do parents need to know that when their kid gets sensory overload? To get a better understanding of their problem. as I have already discussed that a better understanding of the problem can help in preventing sensory meltdowns. sensory overload results in a sensory meltdown.

Our sense organs sense the stimuli but when the brain does not process the information correctly and starts responding to that stimulus that it should be ignored and never responds to its results in sensory overload. Kids suffering from sensory processing disorders get a sensory meltdown. Kids suffering from this disorder display flight or fight reactions even when we remove triggers that result in these flight reactions.

Communication problems

Sometimes kids having communication problems get sensory meltdowns. They never know how to communicate with their friends, teachers, and parents. They cannot acceptably express their feelings, as a result, they get this problem.

Transitional difficulties

Kids having transitional difficulties become a victim of sensory meltdowns. An overwhelmed kid expresses his/her transitional difficulties in different ways. Sometimes he expresses it by avoiding, on another occasion by resisting, and at some incident by negotiating. Kids facing transitional difficulties get sensory meltdowns.

Children having sensory meltdowns have any of the following symptoms that will help the parents and caregivers to face the problem and to find the solution to their child’s problems.

Overcoming sensory meltdowns

Now the question is how to respond to sensory meltdowns?

Here are some possible solutions as well as suggestions to overcome sensory meltdown in  sensory kiddos and to cope with child challenging behavior;

Sensory triggers

You need to help your child to regain control by identifying the stimulus that triggers a fight or flight response in your kid. Identifying the sensory triggers takes the help of your family to evaluate the reasons behind these sensory tantrums.

Here is an easy way to identify the sensory triggers;

Make a checklist and write down all the possible sensory inputs that you think are irritating for your kid and make his meltdown worse.

After creating a checklist, show these stimuli to your kid and rate his/her responses. Sometimes kids get irritated with loud noises and bright lights and many times they are overwhelmed at crowded places. A proper understanding is needed to make your child calm.

At your second step try to fulfill your child’s sensory processing needs by avoiding or removing these sensory stimuli. it will prevent a sensory meltdown.

Distraction

It is the second significant way to avoid fight or flight reactions. Distract your child or divert his attention from the sensory course. This technique will help to prevent sensory meltdowns. Children having sensory processing disorders often forget and calm down when they are distracted.

Toolbox with calming activities

This will help when you know best what activities and toys that your child likes and loves to play with. try to build a toolbox and emergency kit that have all those activities and things that soothe your child and he feels relaxed. When you observe any of the symptoms of sensory meltdown, try to calm your child with these helpful activities.

Weighted blanket

A weighted blanket proves helpful in the children having frequent meltdowns. When they are covered with a heavy blanket their senses calm down. The weight of the blanket provides some pressure on the body that helps the child to sense their body and this pressure will prevent meltdowns.

Noise-canceling headphones

Many children have sensory meltdowns on listening to loud noises, noise-canceling headphones will help in reducing the flight or fight reaction. And if it does not prove helpful it is advisable to take your child to a quiet place where he never gets overloaded by the loud noise.

Understand your child’s sensory needs

It is one of those many remedial measures that can help to reduce the worst meltdowns. Parents should understand their child’s sensory needs so that they can help him to calm down and learn to control his/ her behavior issues.

A better understanding of your child’s mental problems will help to reduce the response to sensory overload.

Stay calm

Last but not least do not get aggressive and get overwhelmed by your child’s behavior. It is not his/her fault. Keep yourself calm and do not overreact. It will not make any difference but will make the problem worse.

Do not try to discipline your child, at the time when he is having a meltdown, it will make the condition worse. Your child is different from other kids and it is not his/her fault, proper understanding of the problems and better awareness on your part as a parent will reduce the risk of severe problems.

Sensory Meltdown Vs Tantrum

Tantrums are attention-seeking responses and they are short-term behavior patterns, children show tantrums when they need something or avoid something. They are not the same as the sensory meltdown.

Tantrums can be tackled easily after taking the required things from children to reduce the behavior. A tantrum is the behavior of a child when he patiently wants something and gets irritated when he does not get it. Most attention-seeking children often show tantrums and they avoid them when they are not supervised and are alone.  Parents can easily tackle the situation by providing the required stimulus and by distracting the child and diverting his/her attention.

But the sensory meltdown is a different thing. It is a severe abnormality in the sensory processing and is an involuntary behavior. Children having sensory meltdowns do not stop or change their behavior by providing the stimulus and removing it. Sometimes diverting attention has no help in making a child calm. It is involuntary and cannot be controlled. If you leave the child alone in a room you can see he still has the problems and is unable to seek attention.

Sensory Meltdowns Vs Autism

Autism meltdown and sensory meltdown have some similarities and differences.

They both are similar in one way or two;

  • Sensory challenges can be key symptoms of autism.
  • Sensory meltdowns and autism meltdowns both are involuntary.
  • The child movements are continuous and nonstop in some cases.
  • Almost  90% of children having sensory problems have autism.
  • Both autism and sensory disorders are undesired behavior.

Here are some of the differences in sensory meltdown and Autism;

  • An autistic meltdown is bigger, long-lasting, uncontrollable, and more emotional than a sensory meltdown.
  • Autism meltdowns and not controllable behaviors while sensory meltdowns can be controlled at a certain level.

Conclusion

What is a Sensory Meltdown? A sensory meltdown is a way of describing behavior that can result from an over-stimulation of the senses. The term usually refers to children, but it’s not uncommon for adults with autism or other developmental disabilities to experience this too. Sensory overload can lead people who are hypersensitive to certain stimuli into what feels like a complete mental breakdown. If you have never experienced this before now, think about how your brain would feel if all five senses were being bombarded at once, plus additional stimulation in the form of lights and sounds around you. It’s no wonder why some people react so dramatically!

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CraftyThinking is a company that strives to inspire creativity in children by providing them with the opportunity to explore their creative side through art and crafts. We are about helping parents give their child an outlet where they can explore their creativity without worrying about the mess or time commitment!

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