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Supporting children who feel overwhelmed in a sensory world

Imagine trying desperately to do the right thing but your body wants to move all the time so you end up knocking things over and always end up in trouble.  Imagine hearing something that sounds normal to others but to you it’s like someone is running their fingernails down a chalkboard.  Imagine not being able to tune out to the feel of your clothes… all day long your socks feel tight, your shirt itches and the tag on your undies tickles your lower back.  Imagine not understanding why you are feeling this way but constantly being told you’re in the wrong.  


Read on...


This is how a child feels whose brain has difficulty processing and regulating the information they take in every day through their senses.  You may have heard the term Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) being used to describe children like this.  You may have also heard professionals tell you that SPD is not a real diagnosis and that it is just one aspect that makes up another diagnosis.  This is because the latest manual that doctors use to diagnosis these disorders does not recognise SPD as a standalone disorder.  Nevertheless, these children don’t care about manuals. They don’t want to disappoint and they don’t wake up thinking “how many things can I do wrong today?”  They need our support and understanding.  

A lot of the time children who can’t regulate themselves are labelled ‘the naughty child’.  They spend a lot of time in some form of punishment and generally aren’t understood by their peers or adults.  When I first learnt that my son had SPD I tried to explain what that meant to close friends and I received comments like, “all boys behave like that” or “you can’t use that as an excuse for bad behaviour” or “he still needs to be punished for his actions”.  These well meaning friends and family weren’t seeing on a daily basis what was going on in his world.  This set me on a quest to advocate for all children who weren’t coping with the information they were taking in through their senses.  

How might a child with sensory processing struggles react throughout the day?  They may be the child who is unable to sit still or be quiet.  They may appear moody one minute, laughing a minute later then something triggers them and they are screaming and yelling the next. They may be the child that is constantly chewing or sucking on inappropriate items such as their clothes, pencil or hair.  They may laugh too long, force burps or hiccups, or sneeze dramatically.  

If this sounds like your child or a child that you work with, what can you do to help?  

  1. Learn everything you can about why your child is behaving this way.  When do they most often behave inappropriately? What were the events leading up to the behaviour? Attending workshops or online seminars will also help you learn about your child’s behaviour. 
  1. Talk to them about how they are feeling and help them to understand why they are feeling this way.  They don’t realise they are experiencing sensations differently to everyone else.  Empowering these children with words that they can use to describe how they are feeling enables them to ask for help before they react in a way that their peers, friends and teachers deem inappropriate.
  1. Seek professional help.  Take all the information you have gathered and make an appointment with either a Paediatric Occupational Therapist or a Paediatrician.  While SPD can be a standalone disorder it can also be comorbid with other disorders.
  1. Advocate for them.  This is the most important thing we can all do to help these wonderful but struggling children.  Be their voice so that they stop being labelled as the ‘naughty child’.

Helping adults understand these often misunderstood children is what lead me and my sister to write the book Ben’s School Daze – A Story of being overwhelmed in a sensory world.  This book is designed to be a quick read for children, parents and teachers so that they can recognize the struggles of children like Ben because with the right support they can really thrive. 

“Ask Ben and he would tell you 

that it’s hard to cope each week

With Scratchy tags, stiff clothes

and horrid smells that reek.

Shoes and socks bother him

they never feel “just right”

And hair brushing “hurts”

so he protests with a fight.”  

SPD is common but remains a source of mystery and confusion to the people these kids need the most. It is up to us as parents and teachers to understand their behaviour as a sign for help rather than being naughty, and being able to tell the difference between the two. You are not alone and all the effort will be worth it. 

Ben’s School Daze is available for purchase through 

Jo Larcom

Counsellor @ Motherhood & You

Author of ‘Ben’s School Daze’

Co-Director and Creator of Magnetic Moves

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