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What is sensory regulation and dysregulation?

Updated: Jan 25




Sensory regulation is about how our brains filter our environment. We filter out sounds from big crowds, bright lights in the supermarket, and textures from our clothes. Sensory dysregulation is when we feel overwhelmed or feel discomfort from sensory input. This is known as sensory overload. Kids who are hypersensitive and/or undersenstive are more likely to be dysregulated.

Kids who are hypersensitive are more sensitive than others. They may not like hair cut or certain textures (clothes, food, etc)



Kids who are undersensitive are less sensitive than others. They may have trouble sitting still or constantly seek out greater sensation (unbothered by impact, seeking out big jumps, risky behavior).

Common behaviors for sensory dysregulation:

  1. Sensitivity

  2. Impulsiveness

  3. Lack of body awareness

  4. Fear of heights, poor balance or toe walking

  5. Restless, risky behavior, lack of safety awareness

How does sensory dysregulation affect a child’s behavior?

Sensory dysregulation can affect a child’s behavior, academic performance, attention span, social skills, and/or communication skills.

If a child is constantly moving and has a difficult time sitting still on the chair, it may affect the child’s attention span and academic performance.


How do I help my child with sensory dysregulation?

The first thing is to understand what the triggers are for sensory dysregulation. Kids can be dysregulated from the environment or just because their nervous system functions differently.

Environment can trigger sensory regulation

We receive sensory information from the environment through the seven senses (sight, touch, smell, hearing, taste, vestibulation, proprioception). Environment plays an important role in our sensory regulation. We often are not aware of how much sensory information our body captures during the day. When a person is regulated, their brains can better filter the information.


Imagine the 2 different places described below. How does each place affect your senses and stress level?

  1. You are in a busy restaurant. There is lights and music going on. Lots of people are around you drinking or chatting. 





Environment: bright light, loud background noise, crowd, various smell
Feelings: overwhelmed, excited, tired, nervous

  1. You are in a cozy place. E.g. Alone in a coffee shop, book store or at home with comfortable lighting, silence, or relaxing music.



Environment: cozy light, quiet or relaxing background noise, your own space
Feelings: comfortable, cozy, relaxed, calm

The environment with increased stimulation tends to increase our stress level and we are more likely to feel overwhelmed. Kids with sensory dysregulation are more likely to get overwhelmed or dysregulated going to busy places.


How do I reduce dysregulation for my child?

Vision:

  1. Avoid bright lights. Use a yellow, cozy light.

  2. Use blackout curtains.

  3. Use a lamp instead of an overhead light.

  4. Declutter the environment. Too much clutter, decorations or patterns can cause overstimulation

  5. Wear hat or sunglasses when going outside




Blackout curtains

Hearing:
  1. Use noise canceling headphones or child-sized ear plugs if you kid dislikes the pressure of headphones

  2. Play calming or relaxing music



An example of using noise canceling headphones

Smell:

  1. Some children can be sensitive to certain smells

  2. Be aware of strong smelling items like candles and perfumes.


Touch:

  1. Blanket or weighted blanket can provide deep pressure and comfortable touch input to calm down our bodies

  2. Some children can be sensitive to certain clothing textures or tags

  3. Let children pick up their preferred cloth textures

  4. Offer fidget toys for kids who need body movement all the time



Example of fidget toys

Taste/Chewing:

  1. Kids with oral seeking behavior – use chewy toys and/or crunchy food items to help them stay regulated

  2. Autistic kids can be very sensitive to the texture or taste of certain food. **Forcing a child to eat can cause trauma and worsen eating behaviors



Chewy toys for kids

Movement:

  1. Movement breaks are often needed for kids, especially Autistic kids, to help them stay regulated and focused.

  2. Exercise is important for kids of all ages!

  3. Regular exercises can help kids to improve their sensory regulation and emotional regulation.

  4. Swing, jump, bounce



Other strategies to help calm the kid down with sensory dysregulation.

Turn off the light and provide a quiet, cozy environment. Stay away from busy, crowded areas. Use deep pressure with gentle squeezes over the body (limbs). Deep pressure can also be done with a hug or blanket over the body.

Give your child time and space when they have an emotional breakdown or sensory dysregulation.



Consult a professional for advice about sensory regulation.

I am proud to be an occupational therapist.Ella Wu, OTD, OTR/L Doctor of Occupational Therapy

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