Guest Blogger, Kristin Olliney, is the mother of 7-year-old Isabella, who suffered sudden acute encephalitis when she was just 4. Kristin’s bi-monthly blog, Mommy of a Miracle, talks about the trials and joys of raising a brain injury survivor. Today’s post talks about adjusting your surrounding to avoid sensory overload.
Imagine you are at a concert. The music is so loud that you can’t think straight. There are strobe lights and spotlights shining on you. Everything seems “busy” with people, posters and signs. The smell of perfume is so strong you can almost taste it. Your clothes feel like they are covered in tags and you feel uncomfortable in your own skin. You cover your ears, crawl up in a fetal position and scream for it to end… only it doesn’t. This is life with sensory overload. Sensory overload is common in survivors of brain injury. Sensory overload is the brain’s inability to regulate and filter out the surroundings.
Since Isabella’s Acquired Brain Injury (ABI), she has suffered from sensory overload. Simply things that we all take for granted, such as going into a store, are extremely stressful for Isabella. The lights are too bright, the music is too loud, the aisles are visually overwhelming, smells of perfume and food, multiple people talking at any given time, the toys that go off as you walk by etc. Isabella literally shuts down and by that I mean crying, screaming, shaking, hitting, kicking, biting, trying to run out of the store etc. To the average person Isabella appears to be having a tantrum. The reality is that her brain cannot filter out everything that it is experiencing. This is sensory overload.
Below are some ways I have helped Isabella with sensory overload in our home:
We all have clutter. It is a fact of life. With that said, clutter is visually overstimulating to a person with sensory overload. When Isabella first came home from the hospital, we had too many things on the walls. Her toys were mostly out even though they were organized in bins. To help Isabella, we put as much as we could into a closet. Pictures and photos were taken down and/or limited to just a select few. Less was definitely more for her.
2.) Adjust the noise.
White noise sound machines and “earmuffs” (noise reduction head phones) have been key with helping Isabella. I joke with Isabella that she has “bionic ears.” She hears every single little noise whether it is a far off weed whacker, a drop of water, strong wind or the tiniest thing falling to the floor. Most of us don’t even notice half of what Isabella hears. Her brain is unable to filter it out. The white noise sound machine helps drown out some of it. The opposite of that is that Isabella also hears things much louder than most. The vacuum, blender, electric can opener or alarm clock all send Isabella running, screaming and covering her ears. To help lessen the volume, we got her “earmuffs” from a local hardware store. Isabella wears these when I have to use a loud appliance. They have helped her deal with thunder and lightning as well. Isabella has even started wearing them to bed so she falls asleep easier.
3.) Adapt the lighting.
Isabella is afraid of the dark but also can’t tolerate anything too bright. To help with this we switched to softer light bulbs. We also use light-blocking curtains and shades, which allows us to adjust how much sunlight comes in. Isabella always has sunglasses and she uses them whenever something is too bright.
4.) Decrease unnecessary odors.
Most smells are very offensive to Isabella because they are so strong. I often joke that her sense of smell is stronger than any pregnant woman I have ever met. I stopped wearing any kind of body spray because it was always too overpowering for Isabella even if I could barely smell it. In the event we have to use candles, they are always unscented. Ironically, Isabella has identified vanilla as a scent she likes. Isabella has a little vanilla tea light candle that she carries around with her. When odors are overwhelming, Isabella will take deep breathes with the vanilla scented candle. This has helped her a lot. When cooking or baking, I have our windows open, fan going and an air purifier running to help reduce any odor. Even yummy things like cookies can become offensive when the smell is so strong.
5.) Choose clothing carefully.
Isabella can only tolerate the least restrictive clothing in the most comfortable material possible. Isabella’s clothes are all tag-less. She will only wear cotton stretch pants, yoga pants or sweat pants. The feeling of jeans or khakis is too rough on her skin. Isabella will say they “hurt.” The gentle soft fluffy material found in most sweatshirts aggravates her as well so shirts are always worn under them. Isabella prefers clothes with minimal print or she says they are too “busy.”
Sensory overload symptoms are as unique as a brain injury survivor. Some survivors are more sensitive than others. While I can control most things in our home, I can’t change every environment for Isabella. I have strategies in place to help her at home. I work with Isabella on applying these strategies out in the world. The reality is that at any given moment Isabella can have complete sensory overload. When this happens, I just pray that the world is kind and that others do not make her feel worse then she already does. Can you imagine living in a world that sounded like a loud concert–one that had strobe lights and spot lights shining on you; a world where everything seemed too “busy,” smelled really badly or made you feel uncomfortable in your own skin? I can’t. This is life for a person who suffers from sensory overload.