Mental Health

How To Manage Sensory Overload at School or College


It might feel really difficult to manage your sensory needs at school or college. The (often overstimulating) environment isn’t within your control, there might be lots of unfamiliar people around you and your brain might be processing too many pieces of sensory information at once…which can lead to sensory overload.

What helps is different for everyone, but here are some of my tips.

Noise cancelling headphones or earplugs. I have honestly found these life changing. There are a wide variety on the market, some which block out as much sound as possible and others which filter sound so background noise is quieter but you can still have conversations. Some of the options on the market: Loop earplugs*, Sony noise cancelling headphones, Apple Airpod Pros, Flare calmer earplugs.

Use grounding techniques. Sensory overload can lead to meltdowns or shutdowns or anxiety attacks. Try to use grounding techniques. It will be trial and error to see what works for you. I find it helpful feeling the ground beneath my feet, counting my breaths and feeling my pulse. You could also acknowledge 5 things you see, 4 things you feel, 3 things you hear, 2 things you smell and 1 thing you taste.

Your teachers should be aware. Your teachers should be informed of what you find challenging. It is useful for them to have an understanding, because when things get too much, you might not be able to explain. You might want to let friends know too, if you feel you can trust them. You might like to fill out a school passport – there is an example on the Autistic Girl’s Network website here.

Distractions. Carry things in your bag that you can use as distraction techniques. I like to carry a small sudoku or word-search book, a variety of fidget toys, my air-pods so i can listen to music or meditation apps (such as Calm or Headspace) or a small colouring book. These can either be done when in a quiet space, or whilst trying to distract your brain from the busy environment.

Having a quiet space to go to. You need to know where you can escape to when things get too much. This might be a support base, nurse’s office or a quiet room. This should be agreed with whoever supports you (e.g. your SENCO or head of year). You might be given a time out card. You should feel happy with the space allocated and it should be a sapce you feel safe where you will be able to regulate yourself.

Try to identify common triggers or times when it is most challenging. This might be break-times – which can be very noisy and unstructured. Or between certain classes when the corridors get crammed. It might be that a reasonable adjustment of not queuing up in the corridor but waiting outside until the crowds pass is helpful. Or leaving a classroom first to avoid getting stuck. Read more about reasonable adjustments at school on my blog here, and on the Autistic Girls Network blog here.

Be kind to yourself and give yourself time to recover. We might not always realise the effect that sensory overload has on our brains and bodies, but it can often exhaust us. If we don’t look after ourselves, it can lead to burnout. Give yourself time after school or college to recover – engage in your special interest or watch your favourite show. Try to get some rest and don’t beat yourself up.

What works for each person is different, but these things helped me to manage at school.

What are your tips for managing sensory overload at school or college?

Love, Emily.

*Disclaimer: I have been paid to promote Loop earplugs on social media in the past, however this post is not an ad and is not sponsored. I use Loop earplugs every day and truly love them. I have not tried the others but have heard good things.

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