All About Sensory Issues 

Table of Contents

Help is here to understand all the meaning and insight of sensory issues. First, know that sensory refers to any single sense.  However, it also can refer to any of your eight senses. Second, your senses include what you see, hear, taste, touch, and smell.  Likewise, they also include your sense of movement, balance, and internal body sense.  So, you have more than 5 senses.  In fact, you have at least eight senses! Meanwhile, friendly, in this context, means a change to the experience.  Thus the experience becomes more pleasant overall. As well, it has fewer challenges for the senses.  For example, think of the expression “less is more”.  Therefore, sensory-friendly means the sensory experience is less.  Thus, sensory-friendly tries to be calmer.  It tries to be pleasant.  Finally, it is less intense or extreme. 

For instance, sensory-friendly is less jarring to the senses.  Less bothersome in a single sense.  And more importantly, less bothersome to the senses combined.  At locations or events, sensory-friendly means less background noise.  For example, background music is turned off.  There will be fewer sudden noises.   No announcements.   Sensory-friendly also means changes to lights.  This does not mean that the lights are off.  But it does mean there would be no bright spotlights.  No flickering lights.  No flashing lights.  Sensory-friendly is scent-free too.  Finally, there are other changes that can happen.  Modifications can be made for other senses too.  They all help an event or location become more sensory-friendly. 

Sensory-friendly is happening everywhere 

Meanwhile, there is help for people trying to find sensory-friendly experiences.  That includes people with sensory sensitivity.  They are people who experience sensory overload in daily life.  Sensitivity and overload are also a problem for their families as well as their friend group, when they do things together.  Many people look sensory-friendly in everyday life. Research, “Caregiver Perceptions of Child Participation in Sensory Friendly Community Events” by DeBoth et al., (2021) found that sensory-friendly changes improve comfort, enjoyment, and participation among children with sensory sensitivities 1

Additionally, sensory-friendly businesses and organizations emerge every day.  And they do so around the world.  The number of sensory-friendly organizations is always increasing.  Locations, events, products, and services are becoming sensory-friendly. They all help people with sensory sensitivity and sensory overload. 

On the other hand, there are different phrases that describe sensory-friendly.  That is because sensory-friendly helps people with different underlying conditions.  Examples are anxiety, autism, concussion, hearing loss, PTSD, and sensory processing disorder. 

In this blog post, you will have a chance to learn all the different terms related to sensory issues and simple solutions for them. 

Some sensory words described

There are a lot of different words used to describe the same thing by different people.  Throughout this article sensory disorder and sensory processing disorder are used to mean the same thing. 

Typically, occupational therapists, doctors, and psychologists tend to use the words sensory processing disorder. On the other hand, parents often use the words sensory disorder or sensory impairment as well.

In blogs, articles, and books elsewhere you might see the term sensory processing disorder abbreviated to SPD. In older blogs, articles, and books you might have seen the words sensory integration disorder.  This is an older term used by occupational therapists in the past.

Sensory disorder or sensory processing disorder means that the brain has some sort of sensory impairment.  Ultimately, the brain has difficulty receiving, understanding, and responding to the senses. 

Infographic that quotes, "A sensory disorder is where the brain has difficulty understanding and responding to the senses."

What exactly does sensory processing mean?

Processing means a series of actions to get a specific result. 

Remember that our brains receive, understand, and respond to our senses.  Our brains have to organize information from our eyes, ears, nose, mouth, skin, inner ear (balance), muscles and joints (movement) and organs (interoception) for our body to respond to it. 

Your sense of balance and head movement is called your vestibular sense.  Also, your sense of body movement is also called proprioception. Your brain is complex and your senses are complex.  This is because you have many senses, not just five senses but at least eight.  A sensory problem can affect any of these senses. 

What are the types of sensory processing disorders? 

There are three broad categories of sensory processing disorders: 

  1. Sensory Modulation Disorder: Sensory modulation means how we organize sensory information.  Three common patterns are hyposensitive, hypersensitive, and sensory seeking.  They all fall under this sub-type. 
  2. Sensory-Motor Disorder: There are also sensory disorders in movement or sensory-motor disorders.  A sensory-motor disorder means difficulties in posture and movement.  Sometimes words like dyspraxia or development coordination disorder are also used to describe those sensory-motor or movement disorders.  Posture means how you sit, stand, or move against gravity.  A sensory-motor disorder means difficulties in movement or moving.  Your child might appear clumsy or have difficulty with coordination if they have a sensory-motor disorder. 
  3. Sensory Discrimination Disorder: There is another sub-type called sensory discrimination.  Sensory discrimination means telling the difference between variations in a single sense.  For example, some children have difficulty hearing the difference between the words bat and cat even when they do not have hearing loss.  Their brains simply cannot distinguish between the two words. That is an indication of a type of auditory sensory discrimination disorder.  With sensory discrimination disorder, there can be difficulty in perception in each of the senses.  It is helpful to know that wearing glasses, using a hearing aid or using a wheelchair are not signs of a sensory disorder. 

Sometimes people ask, what are the patterns of sensory processing disorders? 

Three main patterns of sensory processing disorders: 

  1. Hyposensitivity (under-responsiveness), 
  2. Hypersensitivity (over-responsiveness, sensory overload), 
  3. Sensory seeking (craving).

However, using just these three patterns oversimplifies things. It is important to know that a sensory disorder is not easily classified into just these three patterns.  

All of the different sensory disorders can be very confusing. Your senses are complex.  

Occupational therapists have studied for many years to understand the senses, the sensory systems, and related disorders. 

Questions to ask if you think your child has a sensory processing disorder 

If you are wondering if something is a big problem and you are unsure whether you should seek professional help, ask yourself these questions: 

Is this a regular and repeated sensory problem that is preventing my child from learning and playing? 

  • It is OK that your baby does not like loud noises and is afraid of them. 
  • It is OK if your young child covers their ears when they hear a siren.
  • However, if your child refuses to go to the playground today because a vehicle with a siren went by when they were playing there yesterday, then that may be considered to be a sensory problem. 

Did the sensory problem happen just once?   

Does this sensory problem only happen when my child is tired? 

  • If yes, that is less likely to be a disorder. 

Does this sensory issue happen all the time? 

Is this sensory sensitivity happening more and more? 

  • If yes, that is more likely to be a sensory disorder. 

When you suspect a sensory processing disorder, talk to your pediatric occupational therapist, psychologist, family doctor, or pediatrician.  Occupational therapists have the expertise to assess sensory symptoms and provide that information to your child’s psychologist, family doctor, or pediatrician, who can make a formal diagnosis. If you are worried about your child, it is important to have an open and honest discussion with your doctor and other professionals on your child’s healthcare team.   

Four people to talk to when you are worried child has a sensory disorder: 

  • Occupational therapist 
  • Pediatrician 
  • Family Doctor 
  • Psychologist 

Can a child outgrow a sensory processing disorder? 

This is one of the most common questions asked.  The short answer is no.   

If left untreated, it can make life more difficult into the teenage years and into adulthood.  When a sensory processing disorder is untreated, it can prevent your child from learning and developing important life skills.  

On the other hand, it is important to recognize that a child’s sensory-motor development changes from infancy through childhood. These changes are normal in sensory-motor development and does not indicate a sensory disorder.  Sensory processing is different for a baby, toddler, preschooler, school-aged child, and teen.  

Sensory issues in children are not always easy to figure out.  

If you are wondering about a sensory disorder and your child (of any age), at the minimum, see an occupational therapist and talk to your doctor.  Remember that a disorder affects everyday life and makes play and learning difficult for children and is important to identify. 

What about sensory processing disorder in adults? 

Adults have sensory processing disorders too.  Most often, these sensory symptoms have existed since childhood.  Sometimes a sensory disorder is better managed in adulthood because adults have greater autonomy over their daily life and can choose to live their life in a way that avoids some sensory differences. Nevertheless, adults can seek treatment too. 

6 tips when the sensory disorder is a problem 

  1. Talk to your doctor: Get a diagnosis so you know for sure what you are dealing with. 
  2. See an occupational therapist: Occupational therapy helps children and adults with a sensory processing disorder. 
  3. Read, watch, and learn all that you can about the senses and sensory processing. The sensory system is complex.  The more you know about it, the greater your understanding of sensory disorders will be. 
  4.  Understand your child (or yourself): Be a sensory-detective and figure out what senses and aspects of sensory processing are most difficult for you or your child. 
  5.  Involve your family, and your child’s daycare, pre-school, or school. Sensory processing disorder is usually a problem everywhere that you or your child spends the day. 
  6. Avoid sensory overload and resulting meltdowns for children. There can be many triggers in daily life that make dealing with sensory problems more difficult.   Living a sensory-friendly life will make things easier and more enjoyable. 

For more information on sensory processing disorders and other questions you might have, check out Brain Balance’s blog post. 

More than 5 senses

There are the five senses that you probably know about including what you see, hear, taste, touch, and smell.  It might surprise you to know that there are more than just five senses in your body.  However, there is no agreement on how many senses humans have. Some professionals claim that you have more than 20 senses. In occupational therapy, we previously believed there were seven senses.  More recently, we added the sense of balance and sense of movement to those first five senses. 

Interoception has been identified as the eighth sense. This eighth sense tells your body when you are hungry, thirsty, breathing, or need to go to the toilet. 

Mother and son sitting on sensory friendly exercise balls.

What are sensory issues? 

Sensory issues are not the same for everyone. And they can change over time. They can be lifelong, or temporary. A sensory issue occurs when the brain has difficulty processing sensory information, i.e. from the eight senses. Ultimately, this causes you to feel overwhelmed and may result in a sensory overload response. 

Hypersensitivity 

One of the most common sensory issues that you likely are familiar with is hypersensitivity. Hypersensitivity occurs when you have heightened sensitivities to one or more of your eight senses. You can experience hypersensitivity to touch, smell, taste, vision, hear, balance (vestibular), movement (proprioception) and your internal body sense (interception). 

Many times, you will only have a hypersensitivity to one sense. You can also feel anxious or apprehensive. You might avoid doing things in sensory-rich environments. 

Hyposensitivity 

Another type of sensory issue is called hyposensitivity. Hypo means low or below normal. Hyposensitivity happens when you are less sensitive to any one of your eight senses. 

In this example, hyposensitivity, or being less sensitive to touch, causes the child to seek out sensory input excessively.  Sometimes a child likes to cuddle with a soft blanket and rub it to go to sleep.  Importantly, that is not a sign of hyposensitivity or part of a sensory processing disorder. 

However, imagine or a child who repeatedly goes around a room.  A child who touches everything without an ability to stop. Or stop upon request.  That is a problem.  It is interrupting learning and play.  It is interrupting typical development.  As well, it is a sign of a sensory processing disorder. 

It is important to know that hyposensitivity as part of a sensory processing disorder can be dangerous.  For example, if a child is hyposensitive and does not feel pain like they should.  That child might not feel a cut or a burn when they are hurt.  Hyposensitivity is not a part of a sensory overload but it is serious. 

Common Examples of Sensory Issues 

  • Irritation from clothing tags. 
  • Itchy from certain types of fabric. 
  • Heightened sensitivity to bright lights. 
  • Bothered by flashing lights. 
  • Heightened sensitivity to loud noises. 
  • Overwhelmed by strong smells. 
  • Increased stress in crowded areas. 
  • Difficulty focusing in busy places. 
  • Feeling panicked in sensory-rich spaces. 
  • Elevated levels of stress with a lack of routine. 
  • Fidgeting. 
  • Rigid behaviour. 
  • Wanting things to stay the same.

It is important to note that experiencing one or more of these symptoms does not mean you have autism, a sensory disorder or another diagnosis. It is only when sensory issues are pervasive and interrupt daily life and your ability to learn, work, or play should a diagnosis be considered. 

Additionally, check out, “Sensory Processing Issues and Their Association with Social Difficulties in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders” by Kojovic et al., (2019), which shares the impact of sensory issues on socialization and why these sensitivities occur 2.  

Can a child have sensory issues and not be autistic? 

There is a common misconception that if you have heightened sensory sensitivities then you have a form of autism. It is true that experiencing sensory sensitivity is a symptom of autism. However, being sensory sensitive does not necessarily indicate that you have autism. 

Sensory Sensitivity 

We all have sensory sensitivity to some extent. First, we all have sensory sensitivity, because we are all sensitive to our senses! Second, for some people, this is a problem because they are over or under-sensitive compared to the rest of us.  Third, this extra level of sensory sensitivity includes people of all ages.  Fourth, extra sensitivity can occur in any of the eight senses.  Fifth, it can also occur to more than one sense at a time.  And lastly, it can occur as a short-term thing or something that happens across the life span. 

You may be curious and asking yourself, “can anyone have sensory issues?” As mentioned, some people have a greater sensitivity to their senses.  As a result, they have difficulties with their senses.  Moreover, their body and brain do not receive information from their senses in the same way other people do.  Therefore, they may not respond to their senses in the same way as most other people. 

More sensory sensitivity examples 

  • For instance, noise may bother some people.  So, you may see people wear noise-cancelling headphones to listen to music or even children wearing earmuffs to block out sound 
  • Alternatively, flickering lights or blue light may bother them.  So much so, people wear special glasses. 
  • On the other hand, people might be bothered by the touch of small things like tags.  
  • For instance, sensory-friendly clothing helps that does not have tags helps! 

Moreover, many different disorders, disabilities or differences can contribute to people having sensory sensitivity.  Besides, sensory sensitivity can happen to anyone at any age. 

There is no rule to sensory sensitivity 

However, having a disorder, disability, or difference on the helpful list we provide below does not mean you will automatically have sensory sensitivity.  Nonetheless, it just means you are more likely too. 

Furthermore, this list has been generated by our primary research with interviews, surveys, and polls.  Likewise, we have completed a review of the literature. 

Additionally, we have also added to the list when people or groups reached out to us that self-identify as having sensory sensitivity. Finally, if you think something else should be added to this list, please reach out to us

Diagnoses, disorders, disabilities that make you more likely to have sensory sensitivity 

A

  • Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) 
  • Anxiety 
  • Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) 
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) 
  • Autism, Asperger’s, Autism Spectrum Disorder, High functioning autism, Autistic person 

C

  • Concussion, Post-concussion Syndrome (PCS) 

D

E

F

  • Fibromyalgia 

H

  • Hearing loss, hard of hearing 
  • Highly sensitive person (HSP) 

I

  • Intellectual disability (ID)

L

M

  • Meniere’s disease 
  • Mental disorders, mental illness 
  • Myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) 

N

  • Non-verbal learning disability (NVLD) 

P

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) 

S

  • Sensory disorder or Sensory processing disorder (SPD) 
  • Sensory integration disorder (SID) 
  • Synesthesia 

T

  • Tourette’s syndrome 
  • Trauma, early childhood trauma 
  • Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), mild Traumatic Brain Injury (mTBI)

V

  • Vestibular disorder 

Furthermore, most of these disabilities, disorders, or differences are long-term and chronic.  In other words, something that someone will experience for a long time. 

Infographic on sensory sensitivity 

As well, to help spread awareness, here is an infographic for you to share.  Sensory sensitivity and sensory overload are just the tip of the iceberg. Many disabilities, disorders and differences contribute to the increasing demand for sensory-friendly experiences at locations or events. At least 33% of the population is more likely to experience sensory differences. Therefore, it is important to include 1 in every three people at your location or event! 

On the top, image of a blue iceberg with the words sensory sensitivity and sensory overload are just the tip of the iceberg with the names of many other issues below the water surface such as ADHD, alzheimers etc. On the bottom, 3 people illustrated with 1 grey and 2 blue. Sensory Friendly Solutions logo is on the bottom left, and B corp logo is on the bottom right.

What Does Autism, Anxiety, and Sensory Overload Mean? 

A sensory disorder is commonly associated with autism.  However, it is important to know that sensory disorders and autism are not the same thing.  Additionally, sensory autism is not a type of autism. 

Furthermore, Autism and anxiety are often linked. The Anxiety and Depression Society of America (2018) says that 40% of young people with autism experience anxiety.  

In health care and medicine, autism is a developmental disorder. A developmental disorder presents in early childhood.  Moreover, it presents even in babies. Developmental, in this context, means how a person grows or develops.  In addition, disorder means there is a set of differences in daily life. Therefore, in medicine, a developmental disorder is one that is present from a young age and causes lifelong differences in daily life. 

Autism is present from a young age.  However, signs and symptoms are not always identified in infants, although they increasingly are identified early. Autism is also life-long and is not something a child ‘grows out of’. Moreover, autism causes differences in daily life.  It is important to understand those differences and respect them. Some of those difference may make some things more difficult for autistic people. Other differences may make some things easier for autistic people. Specifically, one of those differences can be with the senses.  Therefore, you often see and hear the words “sensory autism”. 

Autism, autistic, neurodiverse 

There are a wide variety of differences with autism. Furthermore, the words that describe autism have changed and continue to change.  This is because medicine and health care change. Importantly, autistic people share words that are meaningful in how they describe themselves.  Disorder, used in medicine, may be understood negatively. On the other hand, newer words like neurodiversity better describe the differences for people with autism.  People with autism are neurodiverse.  “Neuro” means brain and “diverse” means different.   So, neurodiverse means different brains. Many people, not just autistic people are neurodiverse.  

Symptoms of autism cause differences in daily life 

Language and communication

  • Autism can cause differences in social communication, social interaction and relating to others.  This includes verbal communication and non-verbal communication with others.  Finally, people with autism may find it difficult to understand the social cues of other people. 
  • You may have seen and heard the term non-verbal autism. For some people with autism, they are non-verbal.  In this instance, it means they do not speak or they speak very little.  However, this does not mean that they do not understand! Nor does it always mean they do not communicate. They use other ways to communicate, like sign language, a picture exchange communication system, typing, texting or even text to speech software or an app. 
  • On the other hand for some people with autism, their speech is delayed. That does not mean they are non-verbal. However, it means they develop the ability to speak later than is typical for other children. 

Non-verbal autism

  • Non-verbal autism is not a type of autism.  As previously indicated, it simply describes people with autism who do not communicate by speech. But again, this does not mean that they do not understand.  People with non-verbal autism may understand everything.  Furthermore, it does not mean they do not communicate. People who are non-verbal often use different forms of communication, as mentioned above. One example is sign language.  Another example is a picture exchange communication system or symbols. More instances use technology like typing or texting and text-to-speech software or using a special mobile app. 

Behaviour and interests

  • Autism also causes differences with behaviour, interests, and activities. Subsequently, this affects how a person with autism acts, especially how they act with other people. For example, you might see or heard the words autistic behaviour. That means people with autism may behave differently.   Moreover, people with autism may prefer to have the same routines.  For instance, they may engage in certain repetitive tasks.  In addition to this, they may have special interests with certain things or topics.  Finally, they may experience sensory issues which is why you see or hear things about sensory autism. 
  • Furthermore, some people with autism have more difficulty with some aspects of daily life.  Some autistic people have more differences. In conclusion, every person with autism is unique. Just like everyone else. 

Types of autism 

Previously, autism was divided into different types. However, autism is now called autism spectrum disorder.  Think of it as autism spectrum differences. Furthermore, all the types are together.  “Spectrum” means that there is a range of differences. Although people with autism have many things in common, each person with autism is unique. 

The previous different types of autism were: autistic disorder, Asperger’s disorder, or pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS) and childhood disintegrative disorder.  Now, they are grouped together into autism spectrum disorder.  

Old words used to describe autism:

  • Autistic disorder, autism, childhood autism, early infantile autism, Kanner’s syndrome, infantile psychosis. 
  • Asperger’s, Asperger syndrome, Asperger Disorder, High functioning autism. 
  • Pervasive Developmental Disorder (Not Otherwise Specified) sometimes abbreviated to PDD (NOS) also called atypical autism. 
  • Childhood Disintegrative Disorder, also known as Heller’s syndrome, disintegrative psychosis, regressive autism.

Rett’s Disorder:

  • Is Rett’s Disorder related to autism?  No, it is not.  It was grouped with autism in the past but no longer is.  Therefore, Rett’s Disorder is separate and distinct from autism. 

A summary of what you need to know about the types of autism 

  • Autism is now called autism spectrum disorder. 
  • Spectrum means that there is a range of differences experiences by people with autism. 
  • Autism is no longer formally divided into types. Although many autistic people continue to identify with different types of autism. Respect how people identify and how they like to be identified. 
  • Disorder means that the differences caused by autism happen in daily life. 
  • Autism has a range of differences.  While some people experience fewer differences, other people experience more differences. Each person with autism is unique. 

Sensory autism is not a type of autism

Furthermore, sensory autism was never one of the types, although it is a term used. Nonetheless, it is important to know that sensory differences are often part of autism. In fact, the diagnostic criteria for autism include mention of two sensory impairments.  Specifically, hypersensitivity and hyposensitivity. However, not all people with autism have one of these two types of sensory issues.  In addition, sensory issues are more complex than just these two. So, let’s dive into sensory autism.   

For more information on sensory sensitivities and autism, check out Raising Children’s blog post. 

Sensory autism definitions 

Hypersensitive 

  • Over-responsive, responds too much to sensory input.  i.e. jerks away from a pat on the back  

Hyposensitive

  • Under-responsive, responds too little to sensory input. i.e. is not aware of bumping into something 

Sensory avoider

  • Avoids sensory input or experiences. i.e. someone who does not like noisy, busy, bright places 

Sensory differences

  • The brain has difficulty in daily life and does not receive information from the senses well.  Nor does it interpret or respond to the senses well 

Sensory craving 

  • Craves sensory input or experiences and seeks out sensory-rich environments 

Sensory defensive 

  • Also called sensory defensiveness.  Avoids certain sensory input and has a negative reaction to some senses or sensory input

Sensory differences 

  • Similar to challenges.  The brain has difficulty in daily life and it does not receive information from the senses well.  Nor does it interpret or respond to the senses well 

Sensory discrimination 

  • The ability to tell the difference between one sense and another, and within one sense.  e.g., know if something is smooth or rough by touch 

Sensory disorder 

  • Like sensory processing disorder or sensory integration disorder, the brain has difficulty in daily life. Sensory processing disorder is often shortened in layman’s terms to sensory disorder. There are several different types of sensory disorders. They include sensory modulation, sensory-motor, and sensory discrimination.

Sensory-friendly 

  • Describes a place or event where noise levels are less. In addition, bright lights are less.  Moreover, a sensory-friendly environment is generally more comfortable, in particular for people with sensory issues.  Also, interchanged with the phrases sensory relaxed and sensory inclusive. 

For more information on the relationship and difference between autism and sensory processing disorders, consider reviewing Sensory Perception in Autism by Robertson and Baron-Cohen (2017).  

The difference between sensory processing disorder and autism 

  1. Can a child have sensory issues and not be autistic?  
    • Yes, a child can have sensory issues and not be autistic.
  2. Can a child have both autism and sensory disorder?
    • Yes, for some children, a sensory disorder is part of their autism.
  3. Can a child have autism and not have sensory issues?  
    • Yes, some children have autism but do not have sensory issues.
  4. Are sensory processing disorders and autism the same thing?
    • No, sensory processing disorder and autism is not the same thing.
  5. Does sensory disorder always happen with autism?
    • No, not every child with autism has a sensory disorder.
  6. Is sensory disorder just a form of autism?  
    • No, sensory processing disorder is different from autism.
  7. Is autism a type of sensory disorder?
    • No, autism is not a type of sensory processing disorder.

Child playing with sensory friendly ball with adult.

The anxiety sensory key 

Anxiety contributes to sensory overload.  Besides, the reverse is true too:  sensory overload makes people anxious. 

For example, you worry and become anxious about going out to an event or a place that is busy, noisy, and bright.  In particular, if those things bother your senses. 

Alternatively, noise exposure, especially for a long time, can bother you and make you more anxious.  Think about how you feel when the smoke detector goes off because you burnt your toast.  Especially when you cannot get it to stop.  During that time, you can think of nothing else.  You cannot simply ignore it. 

When you are anxious, you often have less bandwidth to cope with extremes in your senses.   For instance, think of a time you were worried about something.  You might even say something like, “I just want peace and quiet”. 

However, it is important to know that sensory overload is also experienced by people who do not also have anxiety or autism.  Some people experience sensory overload daily.  In contrast, some people only experience it in certain circumstances. 

For example, you might only experience sensory overload when you are tired.  After a long day of travelling abroad and little sleep, when you arrive somewhere new, you might feel overwhelmed by the sounds, smells, sights, and experiences there. Nevertheless, following a good night’s sleep and recovering from jet lag, you love to travel and experience someplace new.  That feeling of being overwhelmed and overstimulated was just temporary, normal sensory overload. 

How to calm a child with sensory overload 

This is the most oft-asked question by parents, “How to calm down a child with sensory overload.”  Moreover, these strategies work with children but also with anyone of any age. 

  1. Go to sensory-friendly events and places
    • sensory-friendly movies
    • museums with sensory-friendly visiting times 
  2. Choose sensory-friendly service providers and businesses
    • grocery shopping during quiet hours 
    • a sensory-friendly dentist 
  3. Manage your child’s sensory experience by making it shorter
    • arrive late and leave early! 
  4. Reduce your child’s sensory experience. 
    • bring earmuffs, the kind that blocks out noise.  Not the kind that covers your ears in winter

Going to a sensory-friendly event or place helps with sensory overload.  It does so because the event or the place reduces the sensory experience of the people visiting.  Examples might be turning off flashing lights, or turning off background music. 

Choosing sensory-friendly service providers or businesses helps with sensory overload.  They also reduce the sensory experience of their customers.  Therefore, a dentist might provide noise-blocking headphones or a weighted blanket.  Alternatively, a concussion clinic might have a calming room for its patients. 

Manage your child’s sensory experience by making it shorter or breaking it up.  Some amusement parks, arenas, and airports have quiet rooms or quiet spaces.  Find them and plan to take breaks away from the busy, noisy, and bright. 

Finally, you can reduce your child’s sensory experience by having them wear noise-blocking headphones that block out sounds.  You can wear sunglasses indoors or even outdoors on a cloudy day. 

Seven things to know about sensory overload 

  1. You have more than five senses.
  2. You have at least eight senses: see, hear, touch, smell, taste, move, balance and interception. 
  3. Sensory overload means that the senses are overstimulated and overwhelmed. 
  4. There are disorders, disabilities, and differences that make it more likely for someone to experience sensory overload. 
  5. Sensory overload can cause many distressing symptoms. 
  6. Sensory-friendly events, places, services, or businesses help prevent or manage sensory overload. 
  7. Sensory overload can occur in one or more of the senses at the same time. 

For an autistic person, a different sensory experience is part of the diagnosis.  That is to say, the formal diagnostic criteria use words like hyposensitivity and hypersensitivity. 

We all have some degree of sensory sensitivity.  Subsequently, when someone has a sensory impairment, sometimes called a sensory disorder or sensory processing disorder, they might show characteristics described as hyposensitivity or hypersensitivity. 

Sensory-friendly clothing for sensory overload, autism and anxiety 

Sensory-friendly clothing is helpful for both children and adults who experience sensory overload.  In the instance where the hypersensitivity is from the sense of touch. 

Sensory-friendly clothing has things like no seams and no tags.   It is often very soft.  Children and adults who experience sensory overload may feel a tag, a seam, or roughness in a piece of fabric.  They likely even feel a thread sticking out that other people do not notice at all. 

Some clothing is identified as being sensory-friendly.  Some mainstream clothing already incorporates no tags, for example, without even being labelled sensory-friendly. 

Sensory overload and autism 

People often wonder if sensory overload and autism are the same things.  Sensory overload and autism are different, but as we’ve discussed, they are linked.  Sensory overload is not the same as autism.  However, people with autism often have sensory issues.  They are more prone to experience sensory overload. 

Many different words are used concerning sensory overload, in particular with autism. Words like sensory sensitivities, hypersensitivity, sensory issues, sensory difficulties, sensory differences, and sensory overload.  Moreover, these terms are used interchangeably but they do and can mean slightly different things. 

Hypersensitivity and hyposensitivity are both used as part of the diagnosis of autism as cited above.  However, it is important to know that hypersensitivity or hyposensitivity alone is not an indication of autism.  Therefore, a child with autism might have hypersensitivity.  Or that child experiences sensory overload as part of the diagnosis. 

To clarify, not every child who has autism experiences sensory overload.  Likewise, a child who experiences sensory overload does not necessarily have autism. 

People with autism have other symptoms like poor social skills, poor emotional skills, difficulties or delays in communication, or restricted interests.  Sensory overload can be part of the difficulties for an autistic person. 

Frequently asked questions about sensory overload and autism 

  1. Can a child experience sensory overload and not have autism? 
    • Yes, a child can experience sensory overload and not have autism. 
  2. Can a child experience sensory overload and have autism? 
    • Also yes. For some children, a sensory disorder, in particular hypersensitivity and sensory overload is part of their autism. 
  3. Can a child have autism and not experience sensory overload? 
    • Yes, some children have autism but do not experience sensory overload at all. 
  4. Is sensory overload and autism the same thing? 
    • No. Sensory overload, hypersensitivity, and autism are not the same thing. 
  5. Does sensory overload always happen with autism? 
    • No. Not every child with autism experiences sensory overload. But more children with autism experience sensory overload than children who do not have autism. 
  6. Is sensory overload just a type of autism? 
    • No, sensory overload is different from autism. Sometimes they overlap. Sometimes they do not overlap. 
  7. Is autism a type of sensory overload?  
    • Autism is not a type of sensory overload. 

Sensory Preferences 

There are simple changes you can make so that an event or location is sensory-friendly. When thinking of common sensory-friendly changes, consider dimming bright lights, adding closed-captioning to videos or creating quiet zones. However, there is no single recipe to create a sensory-friendly event or location for everyone, all of the time. Each person is unique. Everyone has distinct sensory preferences. People also have different sensory sensitivities. 

Sam, a pseudonym for someone who wanted to remain anonymous, shares their unique perspective about different sensory preferences in this blog post. Sam identifies with having low vision and ADHD (attention deficit hyper-active disorder). Both make them prone to different sensory sensitivities.

There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to sensory-friendly 

There is a myth that instituting sensory-friendly criteria creates accessibility for everyone with sensory sensitivities. This is not the case. Everyone has different sensory preferences. Those preferences exist whether or not you experience any of the hidden disabilities that contribute to sensory sensitivity, or not. Therefore, it is impossible to accommodate all sensory needs at the same time. 

  • Closed captions 
    • A common example of meeting different needs is closed-captioning. Closed captioning adds written words that can be read, in real-time, while a video or audio track plays. For people with hearing loss, closed-captioning may help them to understand videos or audio recordings. Closed captions are a text version of the spoken part of an audio recording or video recording. You may also see them on television, in a movie, or even in a recorded computer presentation.  
    • Closed captions may also help someone who is watching a video in their second language. Being able to read the words as they hear them helps their comprehension. 
    • However, on the other hand, people with vision loss may find the text on the screen distracting. Furthermore, closed captions can make it difficult to focus on the video images. Therefore, it is important to note that changes to meet one sensory preference may not help all sensory preferences. So something that helps someone with hearing loss may not help someone with vision loss. In fact, it might have the opposite effect. 
  • Sensory-friendly clothing 
    • Another example of different sensory preferences is sensory-friendly clothing. For some people, loose-fitting pants and shirts are more comfortable. Many people find tight-fitting clothing extremely irritating for their tactile sense. 
    • On the other hand, there are many individuals with different sensory preferences who enjoy clothing that has a compression effect. Tight-fitting clothing help many people feel more calm and relaxed. 
    • So, some people prefer sensory-friendly clothing that is loose-fitting, while other prefer sensory-friendly clothing that is tight-fitting.

Lived experience with different sensory preferences 

Sam describes their experience with these misconception based on their own unique sensory preferences and needs. For example, Sam uses a cane as a visual aid to help them navigate around their environment in daily life. 

They explained that going down long flights of stairs is often difficult for them. Especially due to the landings often found in long stair cases or on long ramps. They explain that their lack of depth perception makes navigating these landings difficult. Ultimately, this causes disruptions in their rhythm of walking, down the stairs or along ramps, as a result of their vision loss. 

Sam explained that once they were walking down a big flight of stairs and got frustrated with being disoriented due to the stair landings. To them, they felt that this was not a sensory-friendly feature. Therefore, Sam asked a friend why they even felt these landings were necessary. After this experience, Sam recognized that they failed to account for the importance of these features for individuals with mobility impairments. Those landing are an important feature for someone who uses a cane for mobility and not vision on stairs. Those landings are also an important feature for someone who uses a walker or a wheelchair to rest while using a ramp. They are also likely appreciated by a parent pushing a stroller. Someone who has poor endurance. As a result of this, Sam realized that their sensory needs and preferences differ significantly from those of others. 

Therefore, Sam advocates for the need for greater conversation and education about becoming sensory-friendly, accessible and inclusive. 

“We need to ‘walk in each other’s shoes’ to understand that disabilities can clash with one another.” 

Sam, a person with low vision and ADHD.

How to manage different sensory preferences 

Offer people options 

  • The key is to offer people options. That lets people customize their experience at your event or location to be a fit for their needs. 
  • For example, allow people the option to turn on or off closed-captions to fit their preferences instead of embedding subtitles onscreen all the time. Offer sunglasses to people who are hypersensitive to light rather than dimming all the lights. Lighting that is too low causes difficulty for people with low vision. Give people options. Furthermore, let people know what options exist. Recognize that everyone has different likes and dislikes. 

Promote awareness 

  • Another important thing that Sam notes about different sensory preferences is the need to have more conversations about it. They explained that it is easy to have a specific view of what sensory-friendly should look like based on your own preferences. However, it is crucial to be able to recognize and understand that everyone can have different sensory needs. Therefore, while an event or location may indicate they are sensory-friendly, Sam recommends investigating to see if the options meet your individual needs. And recognize that some of the changes may not be a fit for you, personally. But that they help other people instead. Sam explains that the only way we can encourage accessibility and inclusivity is by having these conversations and educating one another. 

“What’s necessary for some people, may not be necessary for another.” 

Sam, a person with low vision and ADHD.

It is important to recognize and understand that sensory-friendly solutions will differ for different people at different events or locations. For more information about coping strategies to manage differing sensory preferences, check out this research, “Mothering when Mothers and Children Both have Sensory Processing Challenges” by Turner et al., (2012) which was conducted to understand coping methods for people with conflicting sensory preferences among children and parents 3.   

Sensory friendliness is the answer for all sensory issues 

A list of words that may mean sensory-friendly 

A

  • Accessible 
  • Autism-friendly

C

  • Calmer 
  • Calming 
  • Child-friendly 
  • Children-friendly 

F

  • Family-friendly 

I

  • Inclusion 
  • Inclusive 

K

  • Kid-friendly 

L

  • Low sensory 

M

  • Multi-sensory 

Q

  • Quiet environment 
  • Quiet hours 
  • Quiet space 
  • Quiet time 
  • Quiet zone 

R

  • Relaxed 
  • Relaxed performance 
  • Relaxed setting 

S

  • Sensorial needs 
  • Sensory days 
  • Sensory experiences 
  • Sensory-friendly 
  • Sensory-free 
  • Sensory hours 
  • Sensory inclusion 
  • Sensory-inclusive 
  • Sensory-relaxed 
  • Sensory sensitive 
  • Sensory showtimes 
  • Sensory Saturdays 
  • Sensory Sundays 
  • Special needs 

T

  • Tranquility

U

  • Understanding environment 

V

  • Veteran-friendly 

Who becomes sensory-friendly? 

The world is busier, louder, and overwhelming.  As a result, more people look for ways to enjoy life.  In addition, people want to avoid sensory overload.  This includes people with several conditions, disabilities, or challenges. More examples are anxiety, autism, concussion, dementia, and PTSD.  People with sensory sensitivity look for sensory-friendly at home, at school, and at work.  As well as things to do in their community.  And finally, when they travel.  Being sensory-friendly means people can find locations, events, products, or services that meet their needs. 

Furthermore, many organizations and businesses look for ways to help their customers.  They want to help this large group of people.  Subsequently, they want to build an accessible, inclusive location or events.  As well as an accessible, inclusive experience.  One that helps their customers enjoy what they have to offer.  Finally, it helpful to know that sensory-friendly, accessible inclusive locations or events also helps their employees! 

Examples are: 

  • dentists 
  • movie theatres 
  • healthcare offices 
  • therapists 
  • stores and shopping malls 

Learn more about the meaning of sensory-friendly and who adopts this approach in a newspaper article. 

All in all, sensory-friendly changes help more people. And options for those sensory-friendly changes help even more people feel comfortable.  

Special thanks to Sam for their valuable contributions to this post!

A Better Restaurant Experience for Seniors with Hearing Loss Guide

A Better Restaurant Experience for Seniors with Hearing Loss cover

Are you surprised to learn that a least a third of the population over 65 years of age has hearing loss that is disabling?  Sharing a meal, especially at a restaurant, can be unpleasant and downright avoided by seniors with hearing loss.  Hearing aids do not solve the problem.  However, a few easy changes that seniors can make, their dining companions can make and restaurants can make are key to ensuring seniors enjoy dining and become regulars.

  • Key steps for hard of hearing seniors to take
  • Simple things for dining companions to do differently.
  • Free and low cost changes for restaurants

Create a More Welcoming World and Tame Sensory Overload

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Source

  1. DeBoth, K., Wendland, M., Bilinovic, T., & Sanford, C. (2021). Caregiver Perceptions of Child Participation in Sensory Friendly Community Events. Journal of Occupational Therapy, Schools, &Amp; Early Intervention, 14(3), 291–306. https://doi.org/10.1080/19411243.2020.1862729
  2. Kojovic, Ben Hadid, Franchini, & Schaer. (2019). Sensory Processing Issues and Their Association with Social Difficulties in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Journal of Clinical Medicine, 8(10), 1508. https://doi.org/10.3390/jcm8101508
  3. Turner, K. A., Cohn, E. S., & Koomar, J. (2012). Mothering when Mothers and Children Both have Sensory Processing Challenges. British Journal of Occupational Therapy, 75(10), 449–455. https://doi.org/10.4276/030802212×13496921049626
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