+ Sensory Overload and Your Child: Sometimes Traffic Jams

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From an article by Peggy Small-Porter online at www.seacoastonline.com , which outlines some of the ramifications of sensory overload, especially in very young children.

We take information from the world through our five basic senses — seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting, smelling — and sensations flow constantly into our brains.  In addition, we are absorbing information from our own bodies: perceptions of movement, speed, balance (called “vestibular” sense), pressure on joints and muscles, and our position in space (called “proprioceptive” sense).   So — seven senses.

Vision lets you read these words.  Vestibular sense keeps you in an upright position so you can sit and balance on your chair.  Your proprioceptive sense tells you to move your arms and hands to operate your computer, to scroll down or type words.  

Sensory receptors capture impulses and send them to the brain; there, they are processed and organized so you can respond appropriately and function successfully in our given environments.

According to A. Jean Ayres, PhD, with the Brain Research Institute at UCLA, the brain processes sensory input similarly to traffic in a large city. 

“Successful sensory processing enables all the impulses to flow easily and reach their destination quickly.  Problems with sensory integration are like a ‘traffic jam’ in the brain.  Some bits of sensory information get ‘tied up in traffic,’ other bits ‘get lost,’ and the result can be that certain parts of the brain don’t get the information they need to do their jobs.”

The terms “sensory integration” or “sensory processing” are used to describe this aspect of a child’s development.  We should all automatically be able to take in new information from our seven senses; integrate it with prior memories and knowledge; and ultimately organize and prioritize it.

But if a child’s sensory processing is awry, it will interfere with his or her “job,” which is to grow and play and learn.  Depending on the extent of the processing difficulties, it can affect social interactions, motor skill development and the ability to focus and attend — the building blocks for learning.


Here is a list identified by researchers as “yellow light behaviors” — warning signs that there may be sensory processing problems for your infant or toddler.

Infancy Period

  • Resists being held or cuddled — cries or arches back
  • Difficulty breastfeeding, sucking or swallowing
  • Difficulties transitioning to solid foods or cereal after bottle/breast fed
  • Distressed by diaper changes, baths, or being dressed
  • Difficulty easing into a predictable sleep/wake cycle
  • Has distinct preferences for adults with certain energy levels or voices (i.e. intonation, loudness, high or low pitched, etc.)
  • Appears distressed when moved or placed on baby swing, jumper or stroller
  • Refuses or is distressed by certain positions (being on tummy, on back, sitting) and does not crawl before he walks; perhaps a limited or different type of crawl
  • Can’t seem to calm no matter what (or perhaps only one thing — say a car ride — will do it)
  • Parents are always trying to be one step ahead of baby; trying to control his environment and “warning” people what to do/not to do so baby is comfortable

Toddler Period

  • Doesn’t tolerate new foods well; may gag or vomit; or altogether avoids certain foods, food groups, consistencies, temperatures of food
  • Beyond teething stage, always has something in his/her mouth; chews on clothes, hands, fingers
  • Difficulty with sleeping; demands particular sounds to fall asleep, needs prolonged help to fall asleep (massaging, rocking, bouncing or absolute quiet), or wakes up frequently throughout the night, unable to soothe himself back to sleep
  • Cannot switch activities or participate in daily routines without distress when transitioning from one to another
  • Prefers to be without clothing or is very particular about types of clothing
  • When beginning to walk, walks on tiptoes only; will not put bare feet on ground/floor
  • Becomes anxious in new places
  • Sensitive to sounds others don’t seem to be bothered by; overly sensitive to light
  • Tends to be an observer shying away from interaction with peers/adults
  • Craves movement; is distressed if not moving, being swung, rocking, bouncing; rocks self constantly; appears uncoordinated, frequently bumps into things
  • Wanders around aimlessly and doesn’t seem interested in play or doesn’t use objects for purposeful play

Now, says Small-Porter, please note: a few of these behaviors, isolated, are to be expected and indicate mild sensory sensitivities; remember, we all have sensory preferences. 

What is significant is if several of these behaviors are evident and are interfering with your child’s development, or limiting your family’s quality time together.  If that is the case, speak with your pediatrician.

More information on sensory integration is available at www.sinetwork.org, as well as www.sensory-processing-disorder.com.  You can contact The Family Resource Connection at 800-298-4321 or www.state.nh.us/nhsl/frc.

source: article at www.seacoastonline.com by Peggy Small-Porter on 4/6/08.  Small-Porter is the executive director at the Richie McFarland Children’s Center in Stratham NH.  Visit www.richiemcfarland.org or email psmallporter@richiemcfarland.org.

tutoring in Columbus OH:   Adrienne Edwards   614-579-6021   or email  aedwardstutor@columbus.rr.com  


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