It’s a familiar situation: You are pushing a cart around the grocery store and suddenly your child collapses on the floor and starts kicking, screaming, and wailing. Thoughts race through your head: Could it be because you said “no” to the ice cream 10 minutes ago? Could your child be tired or hungry? Why are they crying?
As a parent, it can be very challenging to discover and respond to a child’s behavior and needs, especially when you don’t know what they are. Perhaps, instead of viewing this situation through a behavioral lens, this could be a symptom of what occupational therapists call “sensory overload.”
Sight, sound, touch, taste and smell are known as the five basic senses that help us navigate the world around us—but did you know that there are actually eight? In addition to the basic five, researchers have found that our sensory nervous system includes:
This sense helps interpret what we see through colors, shapes, letters, words, numbers, and lighting. This sense is also important for us to make sense of nonverbal cues and track movement with our eyes to ensure we move safely. People that have a hard time processing visual stimuli have a difficulty with organizing visual information. They have difficulty filtering out and distinguishing between necessary information and unnecessary information.
This sense functions to help us interpret what we hear and the frequency of a particular noise or noises. We not only hear sound but the brain aims to make sense of sound and understand speech. A person that has difficulty processing this stimuli has difficulty filtering out important auditory input, and background noise. This person will also have difficulty with attention, become easily startled, and need to be told directions repeatedly.
The sense of touch aids in how we respond to physical stimuli through the receptors of our skin. It helps us locate where we are feeling physical sensation within our body and to determine between “safe” and “dangerous” touch, as in the common example of the child touching the stove. A person who is struggling with tactile processing, may misinterpret light touch as negative and dangerous, when in fact there is no threat of safety. A person may become more anxious to this sense, and may respond with fight or flight response, and pull away when lightly touched on the shoulder.
The purpose of taste is to identify what kinds of foods a person likes, and what foods are dangerous or foods to stay away from. A person that has difficulty managing this sensation, will likely be a “picky eater,” and may have preferences not just to the taste but to the texture of the food.
The sense of smell is considered the oldest system in brain as it is connected to our memories and emotions. An input of smell could cause one to feel comfort or alarm, depending on the smell.
6. Body Movements/Vestibular System
The vestibular system functions to help the body maintain balance and be aware of where we are in space. This system works with auditory and visual processing in relation to balance, attention, eye control, and coordination. People that have difficulty interpreting this information may bump into things more and can be labeled “clumsy.” They may enjoy swinging activities, dancing, and jumping.
7. Body Awareness/Proprioception
Proprioception is very similar to the vestibular system. However, vestibular refers to how we determine where our whole body is in space, while the proprioception refers to how we interpret relationship and energy between each individual body part. Children with SPD have difficulty navigating where their muscles and joints are located, whether their body parts are relaxed or in tension, and how different body parts respond to external stimuli. They may seek out activities like jumping on furniture or grasping things tightly. They may have difficulty getting dressed, tying shoelaces, or knowing how hard/softly to open and close doors around the house.
This is the newest and most recent discovered sensation as it comprises being aware of the basic primary functions such as hunger, toileting, and breathing. When a person has introception difficulties they may not be aware of when they are hungry, thirsty, or need to go the bathroom.
When Senses Don’t Function Properly
These eight senses help us interpret the world around and help us organize how we respond to stimuli. However, when the senses are not functioning properly, a child or adult can feel a sense of being overwhelmed and not know how to respond to sensory stimuli. This condition is called Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). In the case of the child in the grocery story, the child could have been experiencing sensory overload from the intensity of the lights, smells of the food, abundance of visual choices, their tag itching against their skin, and the sound of music in the background. Occupational therapist and neuroscientist A. Jean Ayres likened SPD to a neurological ‘traffic jam’ that prevents certain parts of the brain from receiving the information needed to interpret sensory information correctly.” (SPD Foundation)
SDP affects more than 1 in 10 children, which is at least 1 in every classroom, and 4-12 million children who are younger than 18 years old.
Researchers aren’t sure exactly what causes SPD, but have found that genetics, low birth rate, and trauma consistently play a role. This is especially important to note, given adopted children have higher rates of trauma history than others. Children with SPD respond too much, too frequently, or too long to sensory stimuli. They can become aggressive or impulsive when overwhelmed by sensory stimuli. They can also become hyperalert—a state that requires they give their attention to all of their senses, rather than “tuning out” unimportant stimuli. This can be due to a defense-mechanism known as fight-or-flight, and can increase anxiety about perceived threats. As a result, children with SPD can be prone to avoid social and group activities. They have difficulty forming relationships, can be excessively cautious and anxious to try new things, or are easily upset by transition and unexpected changes.
What you can do to help your child with sensory difficulties
If you suspect your child has SPD, get an evaluation and referral for an occupational therapist. There are some tests to determine if your child has SPD. In addition, there are some do-it-yourself modalities to help your child cope with the environment around them. Consider determining and developing what occupational therapists call a “sensory diet,” that will help stimulate or calm your child’s senses. Even if your child does not have SPD, they may benefit from these coping strategies (especially if they have experienced trauma, anxiety, attention or behavioral challenges).
When your child is becoming overwhelmed or anxious in general, using a technique called “mindfulness” can help alleviate stress and calm down the nervous system. When using mindfulness, the purpose is to become aware of one’s environment. Asking the child to describe what they see, hear, taste, touch, and smell is helpful for calming a child down. Also, asking your child what it feels like in their body is helpful. Do they feel a buzzing, vibration, calm, pain, tenseness in their body? These are helpful for your child to discover what is going on internally and how they can appropriately respond or use extra input.
Children with SPD can over-respond or under respond to sensory input. You need to find what modalities best work. Each child presents different sensitivities as some will crave sensory input and others will withdraw and may be disturbed and overwhelmed with stimuli. You need to discover your child’s preferences and needs.
- Go to parks with calming sights and sounds.
- Avoid overcrowded areas
- Find some soothing and relaxing music that your child enjoys.
- Put on nature sounds.
- “Music pillows” or white noise machines that emit relaxing sounds are helpful during sleep.
- Have headphones on hand.
- Practice aromatherapy—sandalwood and lavender are calming, lemon and peppermint are alerting.
- Use epsom salts.
- Hard candies, mints and sipping through a straw can all help alert, calm, and focus the mind.
- Give your child a fidget.
- Play with clay or putty.
- Finger paint.
- Focus on deep breathing.
- Calm your child with light rocking.
- Develop an interest in swimming.
- Encourage your child to jump, hop, skip or climb to develop body awareness/proprioception.
- Weighted blankets and lap pads are calming in many situations. Or you can make a weighted neck bag out of a sock and rice.
- Allow your child to jump on a trampoline, push a cart around the store or do other play activities that develop body awareness.
- If your child would be comfortable with this game, play the “sandwich game” where a child is in between two pillows and you apply pressure while asking them to tell you when it is enough. This helps develop the sense of safe touch.
We hope these ideas will give you a few starting points to help your child understand their senses and how to cope when they begin to feel overwhelmed.
Star Institute | Your 8 Senses (We recommend looking at this site for more information.)