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What is Sensory Processing Disorder and What are Some Ways to Cope with Sensory Overloads?

Updated: Apr 6, 2022

Children, despite their age, tend to exist without filters. Whether it be crying during infancy to letting the entire grocery store know they’ve had enough walking through the aisle maze, children express their feelings explicitly. While parents call the shots for their children, they tend to let the world know just how much they agree with those decisions. From food choice to outfits to noisiness, it’s no secret when a child is unhappy. More frustrating is that children who already do not have the communication skills of an older person can experience various sensory difficulties during their development that affect how the body interprets sensory input.

Disorders like Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) affects how children’s bodies process information received by their eight sensory systems. A common misconception surrounding SPD is that it is only a symptom of other developmental disorders: SPD has been found to be a standalone disorder, one that can be experienced in conjunction with other disorders such as autism. The Diagnosis and Statistical Manual’s current edition (the DSM – 5) lists SPD as a symptom for other disorders, but does not include it as a standalone disorder, causing it to be commonly overlooked as a diagnosis by psychiatrists and other clinicians. This misconception arises because Sensory Processing Disorder is classified as a condition in which the developing brain fails to work in tandem with the nervous system to process environmental and internal sensory stimuli. This error of diagnosis exists because children living with other neurological disorders may also experience sensory processing difficulties that create similar anxiety and fragility.

children laying in grass smiling helping kids with sensory processing disorders by kozie clothes

While the body of SPD data has only recently begun to grow, studies also state that complications surrounding premature birth and sensory stimuli within the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) can result in disorders like SPD. Because of the possible long-term effects of a child experiencing these difficulties during development, adults should be aware of Sensory Processing Disorder symptoms and behaviors, such as:

  • Tantrums while wearing clothing with protruding / rough materials

  • Tolerating unnaturally high or low levels of pain

  • Clumsiness / fine motor skills

  • Aversion to loud spaces / lack of volume control

  • Extreme responses to certain food textures/taste profiles

  • Outbursts due to overstimulation

  • Constant movement or need to touch objects

To fully understand and pick up on these symptoms, one must remember that both over- and under-response are both signs of SPD.

When a child exhibits extreme over-response to sensory information, this reaction is commonly referred to as a sensory overload, the mental equivalent to a pile-up in a four-way intersection. When children with SPD experience enough triggering sensory stimuli, they could begin to cry, throw a tantrum, cover a portion of their head, or look glazed over. Being aware of these signs can help adults pay more attention to the sensory stimuli around a child, in the hopes that they can work together to understand just what made the child experience an overload. Adults that see a child experiencing sensory processing issues should consider various methods of support as to make known their concern for the development of that child.

Individuals with autism, anxiety, SPD, ADHD, Dyspraxia, Fragile X, OCD or many other sensory related disorders/syndromes, are not the only people capable of experiencing sensory overloads. For children with SPD, it is important to understand ways to help keep the overload from evolving into a sensory meltdown, an elevated overload where a child moves into a fight or flight response. While each child must be looked at individually to ensure that their unique sensory processing needs are met, various recommendations exist to help get the ball rolling towards overload suppression:

  • Work with the child to discover stimuli levels that comfort them

  • Remove the child from excessive stimuli (if possible) and into a place where they can experience comforting levels of stimuli

  • Create a sensory space within the home; test out filling it with:

    • Weighted blankets

    • Sensory toys

    • Noise-cancelling headphones / soft music

    • Vibrating or textured toys

    • Anything that helps an individual relax

  • Talk with them when they want to; do not force communication

    • Position oneself below the child's eye level

  • When traveling with a child with sensory disorders, discuss the plan

    • Set time aside for breaks

    • Bring a bag of comforting toys

    • Be accepting to possible plan deviations

Above all else, committing time and patience to a child with SPD is of the utmost importance. One will never be able to identify the factors that cause a child to experience a sensory overload if they do not take the time to communicate and examine just what stimuli is too much for a child to handle. Adults can help children cope with these overloads through open communication. Children at their core do not seek to disrupt – they simply may not know how to articulate their feelings about what they seek to change to make themselves comfortable. Because children are aware that they are kept after by adults, they may experience frustration when wanting to change an aspect of their environment to maximize their comfort. Adults must make known just how much they want to help a child through their daily activities by being an active participant throughout a dependent’s life. Treating SPD takes time and patience, and with the help of Professionals including an experienced Sensory trained Occupational Therapist, children can learn to deal and make changes with sensory issues appropriately.


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