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January 2021

Managing Sensory Overload for Children With Special Needs

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Some common behavioral issues present in children may actually be signs of a sensory processing disorder. Children with sensory processing disorders can experience an aversion or exhibit a negative response to anything that triggers their senses, including lights, sounds, smells, tastes, and even touch.

When children with sensory processing disorders encounter their triggers, they may experience sensory overload, which can cause them to lash out physically or verbally, shut down, or exhibit other signs of distress. According to UCSF, sensory processing disorders affect between 5% to 16% of school-age children, making it more common than Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Learning how to manage a sensory processing disorder effectively, as a child with the disorder and as an adult in that child’s life, must start with understanding the biology of sensory processing disorders as well as the signs of sensory processing disorder and their comorbidities.

What Is Sensory Processing Disorder?

The Star Institute defines sensory processing disorder (SPD) as “a neurological disorder in which the sensory information that the individual perceives results in abnormal responses.” These abnormal responses can also include sensory overload. Sensory overload can be the result of prolonged exposure to a trigger, or experiencing too much of a trigger at once.

Sensory processing disorders are most common in children, but can also appear in adults. There are eight types of sensory processing that can be affected by a sensory processing disorder:

  • Proprioception: This is related to body awareness, which includes posture, motor skills, and spatial awareness.
  • Vestibular: This is related to coordination and balance.
  • Interoception: This type of processing is related to sensation and emotion. This includes being able to identify temperature, being able to identify the amount of force you’re applying to something, and being able to identify or connect with your emotions.
  • The Five Senses: This includes taste, touch, sight, smell, and hearing, both the perception and identification of these senses, as well as being able to interact through these senses — for example, being able to touch as well as be touched.

The symptoms of sensory processing disorder can vary depending on a child’s age group. If you work closely with children — either as a parent, pediatrician, teacher, or occupational therapist — you should be on the lookout for the following symptoms:

Preschoolers (2 – 4)

Symptoms of sensory processing disorder in preschool-aged children can include:

  • Sensitivity or overreaction to sensory experiences — including noises, smells, touch, lights, and tastes;
  • Difficulty learning fine motor skills, such as using clothing fasteners or writing utensils;
  • Lack of awareness of personal space — including their own and others;
  • Being in constant motion, either unconsciously or for active self-soothing;
  • Being overly aggressive or overly withdrawn in social groups;
  • Experiencing sudden and frequent mood swings, and being difficult to calm or soothe;
  • Difficulty understanding verbal instructions, or significant delays in response to verbal instructions;
  • Difficulty being toilet-trained or inconsistency in toilet training;
  • Slurred speech or difficulty understanding the child’s speech.

Elementary Age (5 – 10)

Symptoms of sensory processing disorder in elementary-aged children can include:

  • Sensitivity or overreaction to sensory experiences — including noises, smells, touch, lights, and tastes;
  • Becoming easily distracted from current tasks, at home and in the classroom;
  • Feeling easily or quickly overwhelmed;
  • Difficulty with fine motor skills, such as writing;
  • Becoming overly aggressive during play;
  • Being in constant motion, either unconsciously or for active self-soothing;
  • Being slow to perform or respond to tasks;
  • Feeling overly aggressive or overly withdrawn in social settings;
  • Frequently confusing similar sounding words, or misinterpreting requests;
  • Lack of awareness of personal space — including their own and others;
  • Hyper-focusing on a single task or activity;
  • Difficulty reading aloud;
  • Stumbling or hesitant speech patterns.

Adolescents (11- 19)

Symptoms of sensory processing disorder in adolescents can include:

  • Aversion to touch;
  • Oversensitivity to their environment;
  • Use of inappropriate force when interacting with objects;
  • Difficulty with sequencing task steps;
  • Being constantly in motion, either subconsciously or actively;
  • A tendency to begin several tasks simultaneously and leave tasks unfinished;
  • A lacks of spatial awareness; a tendency to bumps into things or develop bruises they can’t recall;
  • A tendency to misinterprets requests, especially without excessive clarification;
  • Difficulty ideating and forming topics for projects, presentations, essays and speeches independently;
  • Difficulty reading aloud.

Signs of Sensory Overload

The signs of sensory overload can differ depending on age, trigger, and even the child’s personality. The most common signs of sensory overload are:

  • Inability to maintain focus on anything but the trigger;
  • Extreme irritability or mood swings;
  • A tendency to cover the ears, eyes, or head to block out sensory input;
  • The inability to be calmed until the trigger is removed.

If you’re noticing signs of sensory overload in a child, there are two things that you can do; remove the trigger if possible, and escort the child, if they are willing, to a safe space where they can calm themselves.

Comorbidities and Related Conditions

Sensory processing disorder is often related to several other health conditions including:

  • Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD);
  • ADHD;
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD);
  • Fibromyalgia.

Because SPD is often present with other conditions, and due to the fact that it can manifest in hard-to-detect ways, it is often underdiagnosed, despite its commonality. However, sensory processing disorder can manifest independently, or may need separate management if it does appear as a comorbidity. OT or OTAs may be able to help identify SPD as a comorbidity to your child’s current condition.

Strategies for Managing Sensory Processing Disorder

Whether you’re a parent of a child with sensory processing disorder, or you’re an occupational therapy professional working with children and adolescents with sensory processing disorder, there are some general management strategies that you can use to assist a child with SPD, such as:

  • Keep routines and possessions organized;
  • Be consistent with rules and consequences;
  • Keep an activity schedule or calendar posted;
  • Have a designated safe space specifically for breaks or cooldowns.

These strategies can be very helpful in most cases, however, each child’s SPD is different. Therefore, as the adult helping them manage their condition, you should tailor your treatment or management strategies to their individual needs, as well as their environments.

Sensory Processing in the Home

Here are some sensory at-home activities that can help your child manage their SPD. These activities should be considered with your specific child or patient’s needs in mind before employing or recommending them:

  • Bath Time: Experimenting with different scents, types of soaps — such as foams, gels, and bars — and incorporating different textured toys or washcloths can help your child interact and play with sensory input on their own terms and in a way that is rewarding.
  • Play Time: Encourage your child to create or determine the games or activities they would like to play, and the rules by which they would like to play them. This can help you work on compromise as you negotiate game terms, and give your child a feeling of autonomy and control. This can also help your child establish physical boundaries and respect others’ boundaries during playtime.
  • Bed Time: Weighted blankets can be a great option for children with SPD, as the feeling of the weight can be comforting and encourage better quality sleep. You can also practice speech and retention skills at bedtime, by having your child read aloud, or by reading a chapter book together over the course of several nights.
  • Meal Time: You can encourage your child to eat new foods and experience new textures by having them assist with the preparation of their meal (with supervision) or by using other positive reinforcements — for example, edible food glitter can make new foods appear magical and exciting.

Sensory Processing Outside the Home

If you are the parent or professional working with a child with SPD, there are ways that you can help them encounter new or overwhelming sensory input in various places. These activities should be considered with your specific child or patient’s needs in mind before employing or recommending them:

  • Grocery Shopping: You can have your child bring the items that are within their reach to the cart, allowing them to choose what they want to interact with. You can also allow them to push the cart if they are able, which can give them a feeling of control and importance.
  • Vacation: If you’re going to be traveling far away from home, you can ask your child to build their own sensory travel kit with the things that will help them feel safe. This can include toys, books, blankets, or special clothes. For older kids, practicing the trip and having an established itinerary can help them avoid sensory overload — this can include going over the intended route or visiting the airport.
  • Doctor’s appointments: Doctors and dentist appointments can be especially stressful for children with SPD. To reduce this stress, you can have your child bring a fidget toy, wear a weighted vest, or bring headphones to block out office noise. Additionally, you can talk with your care provider to come up with a plan for the appointment. This can include your care provider showing and explaining each tool to your child before using it or lowering lights in the exam room if possible.

Sensory Processing at School

Fidget tools have been specifically designed to help children with SPD or hyperactivity disorders manage their needs in the classroom. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Wiggle seats;
  • Kneadable erasers;
  • Sensory kits;
  • Thinking Putty;
  • Tactile Balls.

Teachers may also find it helpful to employ a system of nonverbal signals for students with SPD so that they can communicate their needs without disrupting other students. This could be flashing a colored card if they need to take a time out, or indicating how they’re feeling with magnets or stickers.

How to Find an Occupational Therapist

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “employment of occupational therapists is projected to grow 18% from 2018 to 2028, much faster than the average for all occupations,” making occupational therapy a career in high demand. Occupational therapists work with individuals of all types, including children and adolescents with SPD and other comorbidities, to help them manage their condition and lead happier lives.

If you are the parent of a child in need of occupational therapy, you can use your insurance portal to find OTs or OTAs near you. You can also ask for a referral from your pediatrician, or school guidance counselor.

Managing Sensory Overload as an Occupational Therapist

If you’re interested in working with SPD, your occupational therapy program may have specific training available for working with children or working with sensory disorders. If specific training isn’t available through your school, you can look for opportunities to shadow OTs that work with children with SPD. The American Occupational Therapy Association may also have resources for specific SPD training or procedural news.

Additional Resources

There are additional support resources available for parents of children with SPD, including Individualized Education Plans (IEP) that you can pursue through your child’s school. An IEP can ensure that your child’s mental health needs, as well as their educational needs, are being met. You can discuss an IEP with your child’s teacher, or your teacher may recommend an IEP for your child.

Support groups for parents and children and extracurricular activities are also available for families living with SPD:


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