Sensory Overload: It’s Not Just for SPD Kids

I was in the park on July 4th attending an Independence Day city celebration. The day was hot – in the 80’s – and there was little shade to be found. Music was blaring over the loud speakers and crowds upon crowds of people were crashing into each other trying to get free BBQ or a chance at the pony rides.

While waiting with my sensory kiddo for the highly sought after pony ride, I noticed a newborn, under a month old, struggling in his mother’s arms. He was very agitated, squirming and crying. The mother, misreading the infant’s cues, continued to try to stick her breast in his mouth to feed him, but he would have none of it.

I wanted to shout, “He’s not hungry. He’s hot. He’s tired. He’s overloaded.”

Of course, I said nothing, but instead watched as she put her child into a hot car seat/stroller. I could only imagine how that poor infant felt – after being in a comfortable, quiet, dark womb, floating, for 9 months, to be bombarded with heat, noise, and strangers bumping into him. Then to have someone try to shove food in his mouth as a way to “calm” him.

The only way to calm him, at that point, would be to get him into the shade, into a quiet location, or in an air-conditioned room.

As the mother of a child with sensory integration/processing disorder, I’ve become more keenly aware of the sensory bombardments we get on an hourly basis, and I’ve become more sensitive to how that sensory input can affect all individuals, not just those with difficulties processing it. Have you ever been in a room and the lights gave you a headache? Or have you even smelled a scent that made you nausous? Or heard a sound that reminded you of nails on a chalkboard? Or even felt the urge to tap your foot, chew your pencil, or just get up and move around? All of that is a reaction to sensory overload, or the need to get more sensory input in your system. We all have our sensory threshold – that point when the lights are too bright, the smell too strong, or the sound too annoying. And if we don’t have enough sensory stimulation, then we try to create it for ourselves to fill the deficit – like the urge to chew on something or move and fidget. It’s not unique to children with SPD, nor is it an issue. It’s part of our biology, the need to maintain balance in our systems. When a person has difficulty regulating their sensory input (every sound is too loud or most lights are too bright), then it is a “disorder” which is interfering in quality of life. These are the extreme cases, like my child’s.

Infants are born with these sensitivities. After spending 9 months in a womb that is the perfect temperature, devoid of light and most sound, they need to learn how to process the different sensory experiences that exist on “the outside.” Think of how your eyes need to adjust to the light when you come inside from the sun, or how you need to get used to the brightness if you are coming from inside a building – that’s what a newborn must do. Most are able to make the adjustment in a few months (you’ll notice it as they focus more on sights and sounds outside their immediate range). Some kids, however,  either due to biology or environmental factors, never “learn” to process this information. And most of us can process it, but we have varying degrees of threshold.

I notice this in my own high school classroom. The white walls and bright fluorescent lights are a sensory nightmare for many of my students. In fact, when I first was assigned the room, it took me a few months before I could work there without getting headaches. To compensate, I keep some of the lights off, basking the room in semi darkness, which makes it cooler and calmer for all students. I keep blankets in my classroom for students who have a low tolerance for cold, and I provide students with fidgets (such as play dough and foot rests) to help them when they are seeking sensory stimulation. The corner of my room is a “quiet corner” with a comfy chair for kids who need to “calm down” or who just need “space.” Next I plan to provide flexible seating – yoga balls, seat cushions, and beanbag chairs – for students who cannot stand to sit in those stiff uncomfortable chairs for 90 minutes straight.
Although some of my peers think I’m insane, I know enough about sensory overload to recognize it in my own students, and I see the “triggers” that can cause it in my classroom. A comfortable child is a child ready to learn. A child who is fighting his own eyes, ears, mouth, and body cannot possibly concentrate, and therefore cannot learn or even act appropriately in a class environment.

I also have become keen in recognizing these sensory issues in other children. This is not to say every kids I see has SPD, but they have simply hit their threshold and are “melting down” or seeking stimulation. That day in the park, the infant wasn’t the only child who had difficulties with the sensory stimulation. I saw many children, mostly boys, running around in circles with no direction;I saw many kids, mostly girls, turn into drama queens and melt into a puddle of tears over the smallest misunderstanding. And I saw many parents of both genders either ignoring their children’s cries for relief or ignorant to the fact that that’s what their children were doing. It’s great to want to celebrate a holiday, have your child ride the pony, dress up in red, white, and blue, and dance to the music blaring over the park grass. Its a family perfect holiday, right? But kids and even adults need to realize that a “perfect” holiday is when everyone is relaxed and comfortable enough to enjoy it. Screaming, over stimulated children and sensory weary adults do not make for an enjoyable experience. Recognizing the signs can prevent meltdowns and hot tempers and make every event a more memorable – and sensory safe – time.



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