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sensory overload

A Child’s Response to Sensory Overload

Nails on a chalkboard. The teacups at a carnival. The feeling of a mosquito on your back that you just can’t quite reach. As adults, we are all familiar with different types of sensory stimuli which can negatively affect our attention, mood, or state of arousal. Children with sensory defensiveness experience similar reactions described above, which can often lead to sensory overload. The main difference is that sensory overload, which largely occurs in children with Autism and Sensory Processing Disorder, is caused by an aversive reaction to everyday, non-threatening input which negatively affects performance in activities of daily living and social participation.

Functional examples leading to sensory overload include the following:

  • Background chatter or noises at restaurants or in school, loud and vibrant birthday parties, hairSensory Overload dryers or background noise from an air conditioning unit (auditory stimuli)
  • Fluorescent lighting, colorful or cluttered environments, flashing street lights, making eye contact (visual stimuli)
  • Application of hand cream, face wash, soap, or toothpaste. Clothing items with tags on the back, socks that are too tight, pants with buttons or tight waist bands (tactile stimuli),
  • Climbing up stairs or playground equipment, escalators in the grocery store, swings on the playground (vestibular stimuli)
  • Foods with different textures or temperatures, foods that are overly spicy, sweet, or salty (oral or olfactory stimuli).

The result of experiencing sensory overload can vary among children and can include both visceral and emotional responses. In children over responsiveness may manifest as physical illness, including vomiting, yelling, crying, running away, or general avoidance to events.

Sensory defensiveness is treatable! Existing literature indicates the nervous system is changeable due to neural plasticity. Occupational therapy is recognized as one of the leading professions capable of treating children with Sensory Processing Disorder.  The goal of OT treatment is to produce an adaptive and organized response to the aversive sensory input. During the evaluation, the OT will conduct an interview with the caregiver and may administer checklists to identify presenting problems. They may also inquire about the impact on the child’s occupational performance and daily functioning in an attempt to discern which specific sensory systems are inhibiting functional performance at home, in school, and in the community[1]. Through intervention and treatment, these aversive responses will evolve to become more mature and integrated so that the child is better able to participate in their chosen occupations.

If you notice your child exhibiting any of the symptoms above, it is important to immediately remove the stimulus that is causing the sensory overload. This may include decreasing their exposure to vibrant lights or overpowering smells, helping them avoid light touch, and providing deep proprioceptive input to their muscles and joints through bear hugs or pillow squishes which can often assist their sensory system in returning back to homeostasis. Continue to monitor your child to ensure they don’t become drowsy or ill from being too overstimulated.

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NSPT offers services in BucktownEvanstonHighland ParkLincolnwoodGlenview and Des Plaines. If you have questions or concerns about your child, we would love to help! Give us a call at (877) 486-4140 and speak to one of our Family Child Advocates today!

[1] Case-Smith, J., & O’Brien, J. (2010). Sensory Integration. In Occupational Therapy for Children (6th ed., pp. 346-356). Maryland Heights, MO: Mosby Elsevier.

sensory strategies for road trips

Sensory Strategies for Road Trips

It would take five pairs of hands and feet for me to count the number of family road trips I embarked on as a child. My family and I would load up our van and drive everywhere; we explored everywhere from Florida to New York City!

Road trips, whether they be taken with family or friends, have been a staple of American culture for decades. There isSensory Strategies for Road Trips an undeniable appeal for many to take the adventure and see the beautiful country sides, mountain towns, and valleys that the United States have to offer. While many families can plan a road trip with no second thought, many other families have become mindful of the sensory demands that a road trip has on their child.

Road trips come with sensory demands in many forms: visual, tactile, auditory, proprioceptive and vestibular. Road trips also bring the possibility of car sickness. Nausea can be precipitated by head motion. Car sickness, specifically, is caused by the discord within the brain’s ability to process movement with visual input. For example, your visual system says you are moving as the landscape passes by; however, your body and the proprioceptive receptors of the brain say you are sitting still. As your sensory receptors cannot find a way to process both sides of the sensory input, your body begins to have a visceral reaction, leading to nausea.  Another example occurs as you are trying to read a book in the car; your eyes are stationary on the book while the fluid in your ear canals are moving as the car goes over bumps and the car accelerates/decelerates; your brain has difficulty in processing if you are moving or if you are stationary as the input it is receiving does not match up.

Worry not, though! Here are some sensory strategies to incorporate into this summer’s road trip agenda:

  1. If your child requires movement breaks, do not wait until you need a bathroom break to stop. Allow scheduled stops at rest areas or parks to stretch, jump and run. Though it may add time to your trip, it will be beneficial for your child as a means to regulate.
  2. If your child is visually sensitive, provide him with sunglasses or even an eye mask.
  3. Keep in mind that seatbelts can be difficult for children with tactile difficulties. Place a soft piece of cloth or invest in a seat belt cover to ease the tactile input.
  4. If your child is of age or weight, allow them to sit in the front seat to help ease motion sickness. Sitting in front helps to alleviate the vestibular input of bumps and hills in the road.
  5. Provide your child with calming or preferred music. Auditory input can be used to help “ground” your child and assist with self-regulation and even sleep.
  6. Set your child up for success with comfortable and preferred clothing. Be mindful of removing their outerwear, as well.
  7. Proprioceptive input via a weighted blanket will help to provide body awareness and grounding abilities to your child, serving as calming input.
  8. Provide your child with snacks and drinks as preferred. Nutrition and appetite have a great influence on your body’s ability to regulate and calm.


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NSPT offers services in BucktownEvanstonHighland ParkLincolnwoodGlenview and Des Plaines. If you have questions or concerns about your child, we would love to help! Give us a call at (877) 486-4140 and speak to one of our Family Child Advocates today!