Managing Sensory Overload
Clothing Tips for High-Stimulation Environments
by Louise Chandler
Neurodivergent people (such as autistic people, people with ADHD, dyspraxia, anxiety, or sensory processing disorder) often have sensory differences which can impact how we experience and process the world. We may be over or under-sensitive (or both!) to sensory input and it can impact different senses such as our sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch. Every neurodivergent person will have different sensory triggers, experiences, and profiles.
Our sensory differences sometimes lead us to experiencing sensory overload and during a sensory overload. a neurodivergent person may become unable to speak, experience repetitive overwhelming thoughts, may cry, shout, lash out, or run away. Sometimes a sensory overload may have specific triggers such as loud noises, being exhausted, or being in a highly stimulating environment.
Sensory-friendly clothing can play a significant role in preventing and managing sensory issues and overload for neurodivergent people.
Before I found clothing that was sensory-friendly, I found that the clothing I wore would contribute to and trigger sensory overload especially when I was already in overstimulating environments. How might clothing contribute to sensory issues?
- Sensitivity to fabrics - Neurodivergent people may experience a heightened sensitivity to fabrics such as wool, or struggle with seams or labels on clothing. Labels or harsh seams can feel like a constant scratching against our skin.
- Tight waistbands or sleeves - The feeling of tight waistbands or sleeves can feel constricting and overwhelming.
- Temperature Regulation - Neurodivergent people may struggle with temperature regulation. We may become overstimulated by the heat or cold.
High-stimulation environments can trigger sensory issues for neurodivergent people and act as a barrier to us navigating the world. Even everyday situations like going to the supermarket or going to a doctor's appointment can be overwhelming for a neurodivergent person and trigger sensory overload. For example, in a supermarket, there are many different sensory triggers such as fluorescent flickering lights, the humming of the freezer units, and the mixture of smells from the different areas of the supermarket. For neurotypical people, this sensory input may not even be noticeable but for neurodivergent people, they can be all-consuming and debilitating.
Clothing choices can be a way of managing and regulating sensory struggles, including in environments that may trigger sensory struggles. Research from Ambitious about Autism suggests that 73% of autistic people use clothes to help regulate their senses. How can clothing help:
- Layering Options - Wearing clothing with layerable options allows neurodivergent people to adapt the clothing we are wearing to regulate temperature and minimise sensory issues.
- Soft and Comfortable - Clothing with soft and comfortable fabric can act as a way to regulate. It not only helps with physical and sensory comfort, it can also play a vital way in emotional regulation.
- Adaptable design - Adaptable design such as magnetic zippers can help with the struggles that dyspraxic or autistic people may have with fine motor difficulties. This can for example, make it easier for us to dress independently.
- Tag free and soft seam clothing - Wearing tag free clothing can help to reduce the discomfort, irritation, and even pain from the feeling of tags against our skin. For me, clothing without tags or seams allows me to concentrate better, as I no longer feel distracted by the itching or pain of a tag against my skin.
- Weighted clothing - Wearing weighted clothing can help to regulate the sensory system through applying deep pressure to the body, like a reassuring hug. It provides consistent and controlled proprioceptive input.
Other tips for avoiding sensory overload in high-stimulation environments
- Adapting the environment - Adapting the environment can be a way to manage sensory issues. At home, it can be helpful to dim the lighting, turn off appliances that create noise and ensure that we have access to comfortable spaces to manage sensory issues. Other environments may be adapted. For example, some supermarkets may have an autism hour, where they for example, dim the lighting, have priority queuing, turn down the till scan sounds and, don’t re-stock the shelves.
- Managing energy levels - Managing energy levels and building rest time into our schedule can be helpful. Autistic people, due to experiencing and processing the world differently, often struggle with becoming easily exhausted. This can act as a trigger of sensory overload.
- Stimming - Stimming stands for self-stimulatory behaviour and is often (but not always) a repetitive action or sound such as flapping hands, tapping feet, or making a sound repeatedly. Stimming has many different purposes for neurodivergent people. It can help us to regulate and soothe ourselves in over-stimulating environments.
- Sensory Management Plan - Considering and planning for highly stimulating environments can reduce sensory distress. This can for example, involve having a plan to leave an environment such as having a code word which signifies that we need to leave if we become overwhelmed.
Accommodating and supporting neurodivergent people’s sensory differences is an act beyond just accommodating sensory differences, it is a powerful way to validate neurodivergent experiences, demonstrate that who we are is inherently worthy and allow us to more easily navigate the world.