When Sensory Overload Becomes a Problem

image credit: Angie Lehan

Ever have a tag in the back of your shirt that is a bit uncomfortable? Imagine that uncomfortableness becoming unbearable — in every instance. That’s what children with sensory integration dysfunction experience. Sensory integration deals with our five senses: sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. Successful communicators are able to use these senses with speech and language skills to assist with basic communication needs to help them understand their environment. When the body has the inability to appropriately take in and use sensory information, sensory integration dysfunction prevails.

Sensory integration dysfunction can appear in any combination of the following senses: hearing, taste, smell, sight, touch or movement. We each have our difficulties processing sensory information. However, when it interferes with our ability to function and communicate in our daily lives, it can become a problem.

Common characteristics of sensory integration dysfunction:

  • Over or under responsiveness to sensory input (i.e., doesn’t tolerate tags in clothing or has an unusually high pain threshold)
  • Unusually high or low activity level
  • Difficulties with fine motor (cutting with scissors) and/or motor planning (throwing a ball)
  • Self-regulation problems (i.e., difficulty calming down after an activity)
  • Difficulty changing activities
  • Poor hand-eye coordination

Speech and language problems often coexist in children with sensory integration dysfunction. Hence, speech-language pathologists play an important role in integrating sensory activities into treatment to stimulate language production. You can use these activities to work with language production at home:

  • Blowing whistles (works on the concept “go and stop”)
  • Swinging (works on the concept “up and down”)
  • Bouncing on a therapeutic ball (works on the concept “stop and more”)
  • Hiding pictures/items into pinto beans (works on basic word production)
  • Plastic animals in bathtub (works on animal noises)
  • Place cards on door with sticky tape and have child pull off the stated card (works on receptive language skills and following simple directional commands)
  • Unwrapping common objects in the home (works on naming objects and functions)

Things That Can Help

  • When working at a table, make sure the child is “grounded”. Make sure that his/her legs are not swinging by placing a box or books to support their feet.
  • If your child is becoming overwhelmed while working on speech and language activates, you can turn the lights off and have the child work with a flashlight.
  • Let your child explore different sounds through playing children’s instruments, listening to music in the car, going to the zoo and listening to animals making noises. Always discuss what sound is going on in a basic verbal manner.
  • Let your child explore different smells. Discuss the difference between cookies and stinky feet with the objects in front of you.
  • Let your child explore different tactile feelings by placing items in brown bags and having the child put their hands in the bags. You can use noodles, marbles, rice, playdough, slime, etc. Find out what your child does and does not like to touch.
  • You can use basic sign language to assist with tactile and visual cues during communication.
The holidays are a season when the senses are challenged. If your child demonstrates some of these characteristics, it does not necessarily mean he/she has a sensory integration dysfunction. If you are concerned about your child’s sensory profile, contact your pediatrician and/or an occupational therapist.

–Kristina Frimmel, M.A. CCC-SLP,  Beaumont Health Center Children’s Speech Department

2 Responses to “When Sensory Overload Becomes a Problem”


  1. 1 Autistics Aware December 15, 2011 at 7:02 am

    We have an emotions chart on our blog post titled, “Autism and Communication – Emotion/Feelings Chart”, you might find it helpful.

  2. 2 Anonymous December 15, 2011 at 11:13 am

    This is great information, Kristina. As parents, it is sometimes difficult to know what is typical kids stuff and what is not. Thank you for giving some examples of what characteristics to look for and what can help.


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