Sensory Savvy Parenting

By Britt Collins, M.S., OTR/L

Sensory Savvy Parenting reprinted with permission from a featured article that appears in the just-released July/August issue of Autism Asperger’s Digest magazine. Learn more,

Your first child. What an exciting, wonderful, and anxious time it is! When you found out you were pregnant, you probably read stacks of baby books, and read even more as your baby grew into a toddler. When you discovered your child was on the autism spectrum, you undoubtedly searched out any and every book you could find that would help you understand your child better.

Along the way you may – or may not – have read about sensory processing disorder (SPD) or sensory processing problems in spectrum kids. Recent studies report that approximately 5-10% of all children experience sensory symptoms significant enough to affect their everyday life functions. Within the ASD population that number can be as high as 95%! (Tomchek, 2007) Sensory issues may have resonated with you to some degree; you grasped what sensory sensitivities might feel like to your child. But, noticing them – before your child is in sensory overload – well, perhaps you’re a little lost there. No worries! I’m here to help you become a more sensory savvy parent! Jackie Olson (a mom) and I co-wrote Sensory Parenting: From Newborns to Toddlers (Sensory World, 2010) to reach out to new and pregnant moms with information about our sensory systems and how they work. For many new parents, this is foreign territory!

So, let’s assume you know the basics: there’s not five senses (touch, taste, hearing, smell, sight) but seven (add in vestibular and proprioception) and some experts say there are lots more! Our kids can be hypo (under) sensitive or hyper (over) sensitive in any area. And, that sensitivity level can vary sense to sense and day to day, or even hour to hour depending on the conditions at hand! You understand this is biology at work within your child: it’s not something he can control at will. And, that sensory issues cause very real problems in your child’s life that interfere tremendously with her ability to be calm, focused, attentive, and happy.

But - how do you know when your child is in sensory overload? Are there early warning signs, behaviors to look for that tell you something is amiss? Yes there are, and as a parent you have to play detective to figure out your child’s specific sensory sensitivities and recognize the red flags. Your goal is to help your child avoid sensory overload (it’s no fun!) or offer strategies to calm down afterwards.

I believe almost everyone has some sort of sensory issue. Maybe you buy tag-less t-shirts because the tag drives you crazy, or you prefer a certain type of comfortable clothing (I prefer anything cozy, like a large sweatshirt and warm socks). It’s really irritating when strangers keep bumping into you in a crowded subway, and you never go to loud concerts because they hurt your ears. Rides at Disneyland that go up and down or round and round? Forget it; you’d be nauseous in under a minute! All that is sensory based.

And so is the flip side. You love deep pressure massage; it’s so calming to your system. You go to the gym to release the frustrations of the day. You relax in a warm bath, scented with your favorite aromatherapy products – ah, how good they make you feel! And there’s nothing better than the smooth, creamy texture of good ice cream. That’s all sensory-based, too!

I’ve met scores of parents who start to realize their own sensory issues when they begin to educate themselves about their children’s sensory challenges. When they feel, first hand, what it’s like, they start better understanding what their child may be experiencing on a daily basis when the world is too loud, too bright, too fast – too intense!

Everyday sensory sensitivities become a problem when we are so affected by them we can no longer function as we should. This is what happens with our kids, and they express this through their behavior – the only way they know how to tell us! And yet, many parents attribute behavior problems to “something else” and don’t realize how much of an impact sensory issues have. They put their children in uncomfortable situations every day: the grocery store, the mall, the playground, loud birthday parties, restaurants, and the like – and they expect the kids to “behave.” More often than not these situations are way too overwhelming and a meltdown or shut down results.

As a sensory savvy parent you learn to look for the signs of sensory overload. Every child is different and you’ll need to learn to read your own child’s warning signs. That said, let me give you some things to look for. If your child covers her ears, she is more than likely trying to shut out disturbing auditory sounds. If he blinks a lot, averts his eyes, or his eyes water frequently, he could be bothered by too-bright lights (to him!) or the sun. If she pushes away certain foods, and you notice a pattern (they’re all soft or all crunchy) it’s probably a tactile issue. As sensory overload approaches, kids can have different reactions. She may begin to get quiet or disengage if before she was talking to you. You may notice he’s starting to verbally stim or fidget or whine, or grind his teeth. All of these things can be signs of sensory stress. Other signs you might notice:

• singing or talking really loudly to drown out other uncomfortable sounds
• crying or screaming because something touching her doesn’t feel right or hurts
• pulling away from you because he’s scared or anxious to go where you want him to. He may remember last time, when someone dropped a jar of pickles on the floor and the smell was so bad.

You may be wondering: is it all sensory related or is some of it just plain “behavior?” Good question! The difference between sensory and behavior is an article in itself, but you can look for cues from your child and the environment to know what’s what. Is he throwing a tantrum because you told him he cannot have ice cream for breakfast? That’s behavior. Or is it because you washed his favorite shirt with a new detergent and now it smells terrible? That’s sensory. Is she shutting down because you’re asking her to write her spelling words (behavior)? Or is it because you’re frying fish for dinner in the kitchen, the smell makes her gag, and she can’t focus on the task (sensory)? If it’s sensory, remember your child can’t control this – so you need to be proactive, stop and think about what’s going on and what might be causing the behavior. If it’s a sensory issue, it’s your job to step in and help your child. That means you change your behavior and adapt the environment to alleviate your child’s sensory issue at hand and help her regain sensory equilibrium.

Sometimes sensory issues are obvious; at other times they’re not. I work with a child who has impaired hearing. When an adult puts his hearing aid in, he gets upset and grinds his teeth. He is not used to hearing so many sounds and all of a sudden the world is probably like a rock concert to him. I work with another child who begins to physically shake when a peer approaches her to talk. She walks up on her toes and begins to grimace. She will eventually engage and we encourage her to interact, but do so with plenty of breaks so it doesn’t become too overwhelming. One parent I know couldn’t figure out why her son wouldn’t stay in his bed at night. She eventually discovered their cat had deposited a “gift” right under the middle of his bed while they were away on vacation. Her son’s sensitive smell detected the lingering odor when she could not.

Being a sensory savvy parent is one part curiosity, one part sleuth skills, and one part perspective. Be open to seeing the world through your child’s senses and at first, adapting the environment to make it more conducive to your child’s needs. Over time, and with the help of a good OT, you can set up a sensory plan that will help your child learn to self-regulate and deal with the sensory issues. And finally, forgive yourself for those moments we all experience. Here’s a common one: you’re getting three kids ready for school in the morning and you’re running late for work. Your child with ASD/SPD begins to melt down because in the rush you put on the socks that have little tiny strings inside that drive him crazy. Now one child is screaming, another is telling you she forgot to do her homework the night before and the teacher will be mad, and the third child is telling you to pick him up from soccer practice after school! You notice your own meltdown meter skyrocketing! It’s okay, you are not alone – it happens to all of us. Stop, take a deep breath, and play detective to find out why your spectrum child is upset. Retrace your steps and once you figure out it’s the socks, go find the seamless ones, switch them out, and then everyone can calm down. Just toss one of those little chocolate Dove bars into your purse for the ride to work… you know, the kind that make you sigh with a sense of pleasure? Now you understand what it means to be a sensory savvy parent!

Britt Collins is a pediatric occupational therapist who lives in Salem, Oregon. She has an award-winning OT DVD series ( and a newly released book, Sensory Parenting. For more information visit

Recommended Reading in Addition to Sensory Savvy Parenting

Growing an In-Sync Child: Simple, Fun Activities to Help Every Child Develop, Learn, and Grow. Carol Kranowitz, MA, and Joye Newman, MA

Parenting a Child with Sensory Processing Disorder: A Family Guide to Understanding & Supporting Your Sensory-Sensitive Child. Christopher R. Auer, MA, with Susan Blumberg, PhD

Raising a Sensory Smart Child: The Definitive Handbook for Helping Your Child with Sensory Integration Issues. Lindsey Biel, OTR/L and Nancy Peske

Sensational Kids: Hope and Help for Children with Sensory Processing Disorder. Lucy Jane Miller, PhD, OTR/L and Doris Fuller

Too Loud, Too Bright, Too Fast, Too Tight: What to do if You are Sensory Defensive in an Overstimulating World. Sharon Heller

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