Sensory Meltdowns

sensory overload and sensory meltdowns

Overcoming sensory meltdowns can be a real challenge. For parents in a household where sensory challenges are common, having an understanding of what’s really going on with self-regulation and sensory processing is even better. Today, I have information on sensory overload meltdowns as well as a powerful tool for addressing this sensory need in families, so that the child struggling has resources and strategies available to them. Understanding meltdowns is one of the first steps in addressing sensory challenges. A sensory meltdown is sensory overload in action! Another way to look at this is sensory dysregulation that has reached a point where the individual erupts.

sensory overload and sensory meltdowns

Sensory Overload

There is a lot to consider when it comes to sensory meltdowns. Think of it like a volcano that is building up under the ground. We might not suspect that below the surface, things are building up and brewing a storm where we see the explosion. Just like that volcano, sensory input might be building and building.

Then, there might be Overstimulation anxiety for potential overload…it’s a cycle!

We see sensory overload and then we have the meltdown.

Many things can led to sensory overload, especially in the school environment:

  1. Noisy classrooms
  2. Busy hallways
  3. Visual noise or visual clutter
  4. Fireworks
  5. Fire alarms
  6. Noisy buses
  7. Smells from the cafeteria
  8. Crowded spaces
  9. Bright or flashing lights
  10. Loud music or sound effects
  11. Strong odors (perfumes, cleaning products)
  12. Scratchy or uncomfortable clothing
  13. High-pitched noises (whistles, sirens)
  14. Sudden or unexpected touches
  15. Television or computer screens
  16. Chaotic environments (malls, playgrounds)
  17. Multiple people talking simultaneously
  18. Heavy traffic noise
  19. Vibrations from machinery or vehicles
  20. Intense weather conditions (strong wind, heavy rain)
  21. Sports crowds or pep rallies
  22. Cluttered spaces
  23. Physical constraints (tight spaces, restraint in seats)
  24. Unstructured play areas
  25. Overwhelming choices (large menus, toy options)
  26. High-demand situations (tests, performances)
  27. Interpersonal conflicts
  28. Physical exertion without breaks
  29. Changes in routine or unexpected schedule changes

Auditory sensitivities and sensory needs can impact learning because of sensory overload. This is where the school based OT comes in. Having a sensory diet or sensory solution to the auditory input can support sensory needs before meltdowns occur.

Sensory meltdowns, information on self-regulation and sensory processing, as well as questions that parents have about meltdowns.

Sensory Meltdowns

I’ve shared before the difference between a sensory meltdown vs a tantrum…but that defining line can be hazy when it comes to sensory overload.

I’ve also shared many meltdown tips and tricks to address sensory meltdowns in children, as well as coping tools and sensory strategies that can help children.

There are also many sensory diet tools and resources here on this website, which can be valuable resources for the child with sensory processing challenges.

But all of these self regulation strategies, resources, and tools can be inconsequential if you are missing an important piece of the sensory puzzle.

Understanding what’s really going on behind a meltdown is the key component to helping children who struggle with sensory overload.

There’s more; Once you’ve got a handle on really understanding a meltdown and the specifics on what might cause them, it’s important to know how to help the child that does launch into meltdown mode.

Because, even with all of the understanding in your back pocket, there will still be those moments where a meltdown is inevitable. So, having the resources and tools available to help a child debrief after a meltdown is crucial.

Debriefing with your child after a meltdown is such an important step for both of you. Having the ability to compose oneself following a meltdown and really understand what might have caused that overload empowers your child so that they can discover their own self-regulation strategies. What an empowering concept, right?

Not only that, but getting an understanding along with your child of that sensory meltdown gives you both specific strategies and tactics to help overcome those sensory meltdowns the next time they might occur. You can define and discover their triggers. 

All of this makes sense, right? But if working as a pediatric occupational therapist has taught me anything, it’s that addressing feelings of overwhelm with sensory processing take some time.

Parents often have questions about sensory meltdowns. Understand sensory meltdowns and resources to help.

Sensory Questions

There are so many common questions that parents have about sensory processing and sensory meltdowns. Below are listed some common sensory questions that parents have. Sometimes just knowing you are not alone in your questions and concerns is helpful! So, those questions that oftentimes come up include:

Parents often times feel overwhelmed or stressed with how to respond to their child’s meltdowns. If this sounds familiar, you might be questioning if your child’s behavior is sensory or if it’s defiant behavior. 

Parents wonder if the behaviors their child has is a temper tantrum or if it is a response to sensory overload and having a meltdown.

Many times, parents see meltdowns that seem to come out of nowhere. You can’t seem to figure out what the triggers are. Where do you even start?

Or, maybe you know your child’s meltdowns are sensory related, but nothing you’ve tried seems to work. You wonder if maybe you’re Googling the wrong things or if there is something you’ve missed.

Parents often feel like their child is just trying to get attention, and that it’s behavioral rather than sensory related.

Another question that parents often have is regarding the aggressive behaviors they see from their child. What can cause a child to act out so physically with hitting, spitting, head banging, biting, scratching, and yelling? These actions are physically and emotionally exhausting for both you and your child.

Still other questions that parents have regarding meltdowns is how to better understand their child and help them feel accepted?

Parents often wonder how they can better recognize the signs of sensory overload so they can prevent it from happening in the first place.

A big question parents have is how they can stay calm in the moment when their child is in the midst of a meltdown. How can they help their child without “losing it” themselves.

Sometimes, just knowing that others have the same questions is so helpful.

Overcoming Sensory Meltdowns

If any of these questions sound familiar, I’ve got a resource for you. The thing is that sensory overload is one of the leading causes of sensory meltdowns, but it is far from the only cause. And, actually, there are sound principles that can help children in the midst of a meltdown.

There are tools you can have in your back pocket so you can address meltdowns when they are happening, and can shorten the duration and intensity of a meltdown. You can even help your child to recognize what’s going on when a sensory meltdown occurs.

Part of the strategy to get the answers to better understand exactly what’s going on behind meltdowns is to get to the root of the sensory needs.

This course can help you feel confident and overcome meltdowns with proven sensory integration tips, tools, and strategies to help your student self-regulate and give you both a toolkit of ways to minimize sensory related issues and even catch them before they escalate.

Sensory Overload Meltdown

To better understand what’s happening in a sensory overload meltdown, it helps to understand sensory integration.

This refers to the organization of sensation for use within the brain and body. Our body and sensory systems give information to our brain on the body in the environment.

The brain organizes all of that information it gets from the sensations. When the sensations flow in a well organized manner, the brain forms all sorts of perceptions, behaviors, and learning can occur. We can participate in the world around us.

However, there’s more to it. The nervous system operates best at an optimal arousal state. This means that the nervous system is able to attain, maintain, and regulate that information so we can complete meaningful and functional tasks. When the brain is not able to organize the incoming sensory information, it can become too much for the brain and body.

As a result, we see sensory compensations. The body attempts to compensate for organizing the information in ways that look different, but work for the individual. There may be sensory defensiveness. However, sometimes neurodiverse responses to the information isn’t sustainable and we see overload. This is the sensory meltdown.

A few tools we have is a school sensory room, or a sensory diet to plan for sensory needs.

This is a very simplified explanation that explains a sensory overload meltdown.

Check out the blog comments below to discover common questions about about sensory meltdowns.

Sensory Meltdown Strategies

There are many ways to support the individual and their sensory needs before sensory overload and meltdowns occur.

  • Preparing for the event- talking about what is going to happen at the fireworks event or celebration
  • Using noise cancelling headphones or earbuds
  • Sensory diet tools like deep breathing exercises or weighted blankets to regulate and organize sensory needs
  • Sensory chaining techniques
  • Using sensory friendly clothing
  • Earplugs
  • Chewlery
  • Personal space away from crowds

Would you like to use some strategies designed to offer organizing input? Our sensory strategies resource has some great ideas.

Free Classroom Sensory Strategies Toolkit

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    Colleen Beck, OTR/L has been an occupational therapist since 2000, working in school-based, hand therapy, outpatient peds, EI, and SNF. Colleen created The OT Toolbox to inspire therapists, teachers, and parents with easy and fun tools to help children thrive. Read her story about going from an OT making $3/hour (after paying for kids’ childcare) to a full-time OT resource creator for millions of readers. Want to collaborate? Send an email to

    Coping Strategies for Kids

    coping strategies

    Whether it’s the classroom, home, or day to day life…coping strategies for kids are needed. Coping strategies are mechanisms or tools to adjust and respond to emotions, stressors, and unbalance so that one can function and complete daily occupations, or everyday tasks. Coping tools help to balance and regulate a person. Coping strategies can look different for every individual and that’s why this giant list of coping skills will be powerful in building a toolbox of strategies for kids (or teens and adults!)

    Coping strategies like the ones listed here can be used in conjunction with an emotions check in and feelings check in to support self awareness and self regulation skills.

    the strategies that we’ve shared here are great for adding to a budget sensory room in the school environment, or a calm down corner at home.

    Coping strategies

    What are Coping Strategies

    We all need coping strategies! It can be difficult to cope with stress or worries as a child.  Most of the time, it can be hard to just figure out what is going on with the mood swings, frustration, behaviors, and lack of focus.  Most of these problems can be a result of a multitude of problems!  

    And, helping kids to understand the size of the problem is part of this because then we can help them know how to cope.

    Self regulation strategies use coping mechanisms to support various states of emotional and behavioral levels. The Zones of Regulation and the Alert Program both use coping tools to support emotional and behavioral needs.

    From emotional regulation concerns, to sensory processing issues, to executive functioning struggles, to anxiety, communication issues, or cognitive levels–ALL of the resulting behaviors can benefit from coping strategies.

    Here on The OT Toolbox, I’ve shared sensory coping strategies for anxiety or worries. These can be used for so many other underlying concerns as well.

    It’s not just overstimulation anxiety or worries that causes a need for sensory-based coping strategies. Emotional regulation, an unbalanced sense of being, stress, situational or environmental issues…the list of concerns that would benefit from sensory coping tools could go on and on.

    Incorporating sensory strategies and sensory play into a coping toolbox can help kids with a multitude of difficulties.  Try using some of these ideas in isolation and use others in combination with one or two others.  The thing about coping strategies is that one thing might help with issues one time, but not another.

    Coping strategies for kids that help kids with regulation, emotions, stress, worries.

    Coping Strategies for Kids 

    One thing to remember is that every child is vastly different. What helps one child cope may not help another child in the same class or grade.  Children struggle with issues and need an answer for their troubles for many different reasons.  The underlying issues like auditory processing issues or low frustration tolerance are all part of the extremely complex puzzle.

    Other contributions to using coping strategies include a child’s self-regulation, executive functioning skills, self-esteem, emotional regulation, and frustration tolerance. That makes sense, right? It’s all connected!

    Coping Skills for Kids meet needs

    Coping skills are the tools that a person can use to deal with stressful situations. Coping strategies help a us deal with occupational unbalance, so that we can be flexible and persistent in addressing those needs.

    Coping skills in children can be used based on the needs of the individual child.  Also, there is a lot to consider about the influence of factors that affect the person’s ability to cope with areas of difficulty.  Likewise, feedback from precious coping efforts relates to the efficacy of a coping plan. (Gage, 1992).

    Coping skills in kids depends on many things: wellness, self-regulation, emotional development, sensory processing, and more.

    Having a set of coping skills benefit children and adults!  Every one of us has stress or worries in some manner or another.  Children with sensory processing issues, anxiety, or social emotional struggles know the stress of frustration to situations.  It’s no surprise that some of these issues like sensory processing disorder and anxiety are linked.

    Research on wellness tells us that child well being is dependent on various factors, including parental resources, parental mental health, parental relationship quality, parenting quality, father involvement, family types, and family stability. What’s more is that taking a look at the overall balance in a family and the child can provide understanding into things like stress, frustration, anxiety, and overwhelming feelings. The wellness wheel can help with getting a big picture look at various components of overall well-being.

    Coping Flexibility

    In fact, studies tell us that coping flexibility may be an important way to investigate coping. Coping flexibility, or an individual’s ability to modify and change coping strategies depending on the context, can be impacted by executive functioning difficulties including flexible thinking, working memory, impulse control, emotional control, and self-monitoring.

    And, having more coping strategies in one’s toolbox coping may be an important precursor to coping flexibility, especially because having flexibility in coping abilities can only be obtained if an individual is able to access and use different coping strategies. It’s the chicken or the egg concept!

    Another study found that children who used problem solving or constructive communication were better able to manage stress and that those who used maladaptive strategies like suppressing, avoiding or denying their feelings, had higher levels of problems related to stress. It makes sense. The most effective coping strategies are ones that adapting to the stressors rather than trying to change the stressors.

    So, how can we help with stress and frustrations?  One tool is having a set of sensory coping strategies available to use in these situations.    

    Types of coping skills

    All of this said, we can break down coping skills for kids into different types of coping strategies that can be added to a coping toolbox:

    Physical- exercise, movement, brain breaks, heavy work are some examples. Physical coping strategies might include pounding a pillow in frustration, using a fidget toy, running, yoga.

    Sensory- While there is a physical component to sensory coping strategies (proprioception and vestibular input are just that: physical movement…and the act of participating in sensory coping strategies involves movement and physical action of the body’s sensory systems) this type of coping tool is separated for it’s uniqueness. Examples include aromatherapy, listening to music, mindfulness (interoception), and sensory play.

    Sensory strategies that are motivating can be a big help for some kids. Try these train themed sensory activity ideas to get your creative juices flowing.

    Emotional- Thinking about one’s feelings and emotions is the start of emotional regulation and social development. Acting out feelings, talking to a friend or teacher…communication is huge!

    These social skills activities are a great way to build awareness of self and others and can double as coping tools too.

    Communication- Talking about feelings, talking to others, writing in a journal, singing. Have you ever just had to “vent” your feelings about a situation? That ability to “let it all out” is a way to process a situation and talk through solutions, or find common ground in a situation.

    Use this list of coping skills to help kids build a coping skills toolbox.

    List of Coping skills

    1. Move- Get up and run in place, jog, do jumping jacks, or hop in place.

    2. Fidget tools in school– Use learning-friendly fidget tools, perfect for the classroom or at-home learning space. Here is one desk fidget tool that kids can use while learning.

    3. Talk- Talk about it to a friend, talk to an adult, or talk to a teacher.

    4. Snuggle- Grab a big cozy blanket and pile pillows around you to build a fort of comfort!  The pressure from the blanket and pillows provides proprioceptive input.

    5. Take a bath or hot shower.

    6. Blow bubbles.  The oral sensory input is organizing.

    7. Sensory water play.

    8. Scream into a pillow.

    9. Pound play dough.  Try a heavy work dough like this DIY marshmallow proprioception dough.

    10. Use a keychain fidget tool. This is a DIY fidget tool that kids can make while building fine motor skills. Attach it to a belt loop, backpack, or even shoe laces for circle time attention.

    11. Exercise. This alphabet exercise activities can be helpful in coming up with exercises for kids. Use the printable sheet to spell words, the child’s name, etc. This alphabet slide deck for teletherapy uses the same letter exercises and offers exercises for each letter of the alphabet. Use it in teletherapy or face-to-face sessions or learning.

    12. Look at the clouds and find shapes.

    13. Deep breathing. Deep breathing exercise are a mindfulness activity for kids with benefits… Try these themed deep breathing printable sheets: pumpkin deep breathing, clover deep breathing, Thanksgiving deep breathing, and Christmas mindfulness activity.

    14. Take a walk in nature.

    15. Play a game.

    16.  Build with LEGOS.

    17. Listen to the sounds of the ocean on a soothing sounds app or sound machine.

    18. Count backwards.  Try walking in a circle while counting or other movements such as jumping, skipping, or hopping.

    19. Drink a cold drink.

    20. Drink a smoothie. There are proprioceptive and oral motor benefits to drinking a smoothie through a straw. Here are rainbow smoothie recipes for each color of the rainbow.

    21. Squeeze a stuffed animal.

    22. Listen to music.

    23. Hum a favorite song.

    24. Blow bubbles.

    25. Chew gum.

    27. Tear paper for fine motor benefits and heavy work for the fingers and hands.

    28. Smash and jump on ice cubes outdoors.  Jumping on ice is a great activity for incorporating prioprioceptive sensory input.

    29. Journal.  The Impulse Control Journal is an excellent tool for self-awareness and coming up with a game plan that works…and then keeping track of how it all works together in daily tasks.

    30. Guided imagery.

    31. Think of consequences.

    32. Stretch.

    33.  Go for a walk.

    34.  Write a story or draw a picture. Sometimes it helps to crumble it up and throw it away!

    35.  Blow up balloons and then pop them.

    36. Take a time out.

    37. Animal walks.

    38. Imagine the best day ever.

    39.  Swing on swings.

    40.  Name 5 positive things about yourself.

    41. Draw with sidewalk chalk. Drawing can relieve stress.

    42. Try a pencil topper fidget tool for focus during written work.

    43. Add movement- This monster movements slide deck uses a monster theme for core strength, mobility and movement breaks. It’s perfect for teletherapy and using as a coping strategy.

    44. Try this easy coping strategy that only uses your hands.

    45. Take a nap.

    46. Sensory-based tricks and tips that help with meltdowns.

    47. Use calm down toys.

    HEAVY WORK coping skills

    Brain breaks are a powerful and effective way to address regulation needs, help with attention, and impact learning into the classroom or at home as part of distance learning.

    The impact of emotions and changes to routines can be big stressors in kids. They are struggling through the day’s activities while sometimes striving to pay attention through sensory processing issues or executive functioning needs. Brain breaks, or movement breaks can be used as part of a sensory diet or in a whole-classroom activity between classroom tasks. 

    This collection of 11 pages of heavy work activity cards are combined into themed cards so you can add heavy work to everyday play.

    heavy work cards for regulation, attention, and themed brain breaks

    Coping strategies for kids printable

    Want a printable list of coping tools for kids? This list of coping skills can be printed off and used as a checklist for building a toolbox of strategies.

    Get the printable version of this list.  It’s free!

    Try these sensory coping strategies to help kids with anxiety, stress, worries, or other issues.
    Printable list of sensory coping strategies for helping kids cope.

    Coping strategies can come in handy in many situations:

    When saying “calm down” just isn’t enough…

    When a child is easily “triggered” and seems to melt down at any sign of loud noises or excitement…

    When you need help or a starting point to teach kids self-regulation strategies…

    When you are struggling to motivate or redirect a child without causing a meltdown…

    When you’re struggling to help kids explore their emotions, develop self-regulation and coping skills, manage and reflect on their emotions, identify their emotions, and more as they grow…

    Free Classroom Sensory Strategies Toolkit

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      Gage, M. (1992). The Appraisal Model of Coping: An Assessment and Intervention Model for Occupational Therapy, American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 46, 353-362. Retrieved from : oi:10.5014/ajot.46.4.353 on 5-24-27.

      Colleen Beck, OTR/L has been an occupational therapist since 2000, working in school-based, hand therapy, outpatient peds, EI, and SNF. Colleen created The OT Toolbox to inspire therapists, teachers, and parents with easy and fun tools to help children thrive. Read her story about going from an OT making $3/hour (after paying for kids’ childcare) to a full-time OT resource creator for millions of readers. Want to collaborate? Send an email to

      Christmas Mindfulness

      Picture of Christmas tree with arrows on ribbons and text reading "Christmas mindfulness activity"

      If Christmas mindfulness is something you would like to achieve this holiday season, we’ve got a seasonal strategy for you. This deep breaths Christmas tree is a deep breathing exercise that is sure to be a go-to Christmas season mindfulness activity that supports self-regulation needs for kids and families. Use this holiday sensory tool along with our breathing star.

      Christmas mindfulness

      Christmas Mindfulness

      This time of year, most of us knee deep in holiday planning, prep work, and to-do lists! Having a few mindfulness for kids tools up your sleeve is a good idea this time of year. Today, I wanted to provide some tips on mindfulness during the holidays.

      For our kids with self-regulation needs or emotional regulation challenges that impact learning, emotions, anxiety, or worries, the holiday season can be a time of even more concern.

      Over the holidays, school and routines are off. There may be late nights at holiday parties, parents out for work events, unfamiliar family and friends visiting, new sights and sounds. All of this sensory input and environmental input can put a regulation system on overdrive.

      Then, in the school environment, there may be school parties, special events, and special themed days. The classroom Christmas party (or winter party) can be cause for sensory overload for some kids. Picture a classroom full of excited children at the end of a semester. The noises, sights, and environmental input can be just too much.

      In the community, there is holiday music, crowds, and a sense of excitement in the air. This can be a reason all its own for Christmas mindfulness tools.

      Then imagine the child with regulation needs at a family party with unfamiliar guests, a scratchy sweater, strange smells, and lots of noise. A Christmas mindfulness tool that the child can pull out and use to ease worries or stressors can be a great strategy for this time of year.

      Kids are barraged by schedule changes, anticipation of holiday events, later bedtimes, holiday travel, parent/teacher stress, increased sugar…and more. They feel these big feelings and can “lose it”, seemingly at the drop of a hat. Children can melt down in front of our eyes. This time of year perhaps especially, there is SO much going on inside those little bodies and minds. Focusing on mindfulness and coping strategies can help.

      I mean, think about it this way: We as adults are totally stressed out by deadlines, shopping lists, travel, extended family, holiday budgets, and the never-ending to-do lists.

      Our kids see that stress and anxiety.

      Think about our kiddos with sensory struggles. They are bombarded by lights and music, hustle and bustle in the grocery store, shopping mall, and even by the neighborhood lights. The later bedtimes and influx of sensory input is a challenge to process for them. It’s overwhelming and exhausting.

      Think about our students with praxis or motor issues. There are crowds to navigate, auditorium stages to maneuver and they need to do it FAST. There are schedules to maintain and growing to-do lists!

      And that’s just the beginning. All of our kids…no matter what their strengths or needs be…struggle with the change in routines, the adult stress, anticipation, holiday projects, gift giving issues, that extra sugar from holiday sweets, itchy holiday sweaters and scratchy tights, or mom’s stress from holiday traffic.

      That “iceberg” of underlying issues and concerns is a holiday version that leads to emotional breakdowns, poor coping skills, and sensory meltdowns.

      Now, think about the kiddo with executive functioning challenges. They can’t plan ahead or prioritize tasks when they have a holiday letter to write, a classroom sing-along to practice for, and Grandma’s house to visit next weekend. It’s hard for them to function when their routine is off kilter and anticipation is high.

      There are so many benefits to mindfulness, and supporting kids in this way makes a huge impact. Having a few Christmas themed mindfulness strategies on hand could make all the difference when it comes to experiencing all that this season has to offer.

      Christmas Mindfulness Activity

      Below, you will find a Christmas mindfulness activity and some coping strategies to address the holiday stress. This mindfulness tool goes along well with our Pumpkin deep breathing exercise, and Thanksgiving mindfulness activity.

      Christmas mindfulness activity for kids during the holiday season.

      When we think about the holidays from the perspective of a child. Having a set of mindfulness activities for kids is a great way to fill their toolbox with strategies they can use each day.

      Essentially, the post urges us to be mindful of the child’s thought process, emotions, and coping strategies this time of year.

      Holiday Mindfulness

      Below, you’ll find a printable Deep breathing Christmas tree printable that kids can use to support regulation needs. It offers relaxation breathing as a sensory tool.

      Print off the sheet and trace along the arrows as the user breathes deeply in and out. This calm and centering visual tracking paired with deep breathing can help the user to focus with mindful breathing.

      Mindful breathing is helpful in calming heart rate, easing anxious thoughts, and helping the user to focus on one thought rather than the many thoughts that may be running through their head.

      You can even pair the visual Christmas mindfulness breathing tool with visualizations.

      • Ask the user to visualize a calm space with a lit Christmas tree in a dimly lit room.
      • Ask the user to visualize a calm space rather than the hustle and bustle that may be happening around them.
      • Invite the user to imagine deeply breathing in the scent of a Christmas tree and breathing out the same scent as they empty their lungs.
      • Invite the user to picture the worry and anxiety slowly releasing from their body as they move down the slopes of the Christmas tree.
      • Pair the deep breathing with thoughts of things that remind you of peace and love (for example) for with each breath.
      • For each layer of the tree, kids can concentrate on one thing, person, or aspect of the holidays that they are grateful for. Thinking about whatever it is that you are grateful for is a simple way to pair the benefits of slow deep breaths with intentional thoughts.

      Focus on breath control as the user breaths in and out.

      Then, show the user how to carry over this Christmas mindfulness strategy using a real Christmas tree.

      1. After using the printable Christmas tree deep breathing exercise, they can look at a real Christmas tree and trace the lines of the tree’s sides with their eyes as they breathe in and breathe out.
      2. Ask them to trace an imaginary Christmas tree, or triangle shape on the palm of their hand using the pointer finger of their other hand.

      This becomes a Christmas mindfulness tool that they can use any where and any time even without the printable exercise.

      Christmas mindfulness activity

      Christmas COping Tools

      This holiday season, I wanted to fill your toolbox with the tools your little one (or client/student) needs to thrive.

      These are the strategies and tips we can use to slow down, take a deep breath, and recognize the underlying issues going on behind behaviors, meltdowns, and frustrations.

      Because when you have the tools in place, you have a blueprint for success in the child.

      Here are some holiday tools that can help both YOU and a CHILD struggling with all that this time of year brings…

      Christmas Mindfulness

      This is a coloring page. Use it as a handout or home program. Kids can color it in and work on fine motor skills, too!

      Use the Christmas mindfulness handout with kids as a group or individually. You can set this up in several ways. Ask them fist to list out some things they are grateful for. Then, quietly say an item with each breath break.

      As a mindfulness group activity, use the Christmas tree graphic and explain that they will be pairing deep breathing with a focus on love or peace. Come up with a list of things the group loves about the holidays. As you work through he deep breathing exercise, the children in the group can focus on things that brings them peace personally.

      Or, you could invite the child to think in their head about some things that remind them of the holidays and then with each breath in, they intentionally concentrate on that thing/person/idea.

      More Christmas Mindfulness Strategies

      Here are more coping tools for kids that focus on addressing underlying needs so that kids can function. Use these strategies as part of a sensory diet or within the day.

      The thing about mindfulness is that the tools that support needs will differ for every individual. During the holiday season, there are ways to support mindful needs with the holidays in mind:

      All of these are self-regulation strategies with a holiday theme and can be a powerful tool when it comes to supporting emotional and sensory needs during the holidays.

      Mindful Christmas

      Having a mindful Christmas can mean being aware of stressors or things that add a sense of dysregulation.

      During the holiday season, the connection between mindfulness and self-regulation becomes even more crucial, especially for children and therapy providers navigating the potential stress, anxiety, and worries associated with this time. Mindfulness practices offer a valuable toolkit for managing these challenges:

      Stress Reduction: The holiday season can bring added stress, but mindfulness provides a means to cultivate a calm and centered state, helping both children and therapy providers navigate and mitigate holiday-related stressors.

      Emotional Regulation: Mindfulness practices, tailored for children and therapy providers, become essential tools for recognizing and regulating emotions heightened by holiday-related pressures. This contributes to a more emotionally balanced experience.

      Anxiety Management: Mindfulness techniques, such as mindful breathing or guided imagery, can be powerful allies in managing anxiety. They provide a practical and accessible way for children and therapy providers to alleviate anxiety during the holiday hustle.

      Worry Coping Strategies: The mindfulness approach of observing thoughts without judgment is particularly helpful in addressing worries. Children and therapy providers can utilize mindfulness to create a mental space to acknowledge concerns and develop effective coping strategies.

      Enhanced Focus and Presence: Mindfulness helps maintain focus on the present moment, preventing holiday-related worries from overwhelming the joy of the season. This is especially beneficial for therapy providers supporting children, ensuring they are fully present during sessions.

      Cultivating Resilience: Mindfulness fosters resilience by promoting adaptability and acceptance. This quality becomes crucial during the holiday season, where unexpected changes or challenges may arise for both children and therapy providers.

      Empathy and Connection: Mindfulness practices that emphasize compassion and empathy contribute to a sense of connection. Therapy providers can incorporate these practices to create a supportive and understanding environment for children navigating holiday stressors.

      By integrating mindfulness into therapeutic approaches, therapy providers can empower children with valuable self-regulation tools, fostering a positive and mindful experience during the holiday season. The practices not only address immediate stressors but also contribute to building resilience and coping skills for the long term.

      Free printable Christmas Mindfulness Printable

      Want to grab our Christmas tree mindfulness deep breathing exercise? Enter your email address into the form below. This printable is also available inside The OT Toolbox Member’s Club. Members can log in and head over to our Mindfulness Toolbox where we have this and other Christmas mindfulness printable exercises.

      Print off this Christmas breathing activity and start supporting skills. This Christmas coping skills activity can be used on the go while out and about this holiday season, at a family get together, or during school assemblies for the holiday season.

      Get a Christmas Tree Mindfulness Coloring Page

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        Wishing you a thriving, stress-free, and functional holiday season for you and those kiddos you serve!

        You will also want to grab a copy of our breathing star, which can be paired with our Christmas mindfulness tool.

        Colleen Beck, OTR/L has been an occupational therapist since 2000, working in school-based, hand therapy, outpatient peds, EI, and SNF. Colleen created The OT Toolbox to inspire therapists, teachers, and parents with easy and fun tools to help children thrive. Read her story about going from an OT making $3/hour (after paying for kids’ childcare) to a full-time OT resource creator for millions of readers. Want to collaborate? Send an email to

        Looking for done-for you therapy activities this holiday season?

        This print-and-go Christmas Therapy Kit includes no-prep, fine motor, gross motor, self-regulation, visual perceptual activities…and much more… to help kids develop functional grasp, dexterity, strength, and endurance. Use fun, Christmas-themed, motor activities so you can help children develop the skills they need.

        This 100 page no-prep packet includes everything you need to guide fine motor skills in face-to-face AND virtual learning. You’ll find Christmas-themed activities for hand strength, pinch and grip, dexterity, eye-hand coordination, bilateral coordination, endurance, finger isolation, and more. 

        Sensory Red Flags and Toddler Behavior Red Flags

        sensory red flags

        Parents of young children may notice sensory red flags, or sensory preferences in their children that bring up a few questions. For parents of toddlers, this can be a gut feeling that milestones may be delayed, regressing, or “off”. Below, we’re covering red flags related to sensory, including toddler behavior red flags that might indicate a need for consultation with a pediatrician. Let’s go deeper…

        sensory red flags

        Sensory red flags can help parents recognize their child’s’ sensory processing issues. These gut feelings can help kids to get the sensory input they need for independence and functioning.

        One consideration is overstimulation anxiety. Worrying about the sensory input from different experiences because there are sensory stimulants that impact function is one example of a sensory red flag.

        Sensory Red Flags

        Sometimes parents just know there is something “off” with their child.  That deep, inner gut feeling is what lets us know that there is just something different about the way their child interacts, processes information, or performs in daily tasks.  

        That ability to recognize gut feelings allows us to know there is an unsuspected ear infection in our toddler or it might be the one red flag that nags at us during sleepless nights that something bigger is going on with our child.

        You might have heard it said before: Mom’s always have that gut feeling about their child.  Well, sometimes that inner voice can be a loud scream that a child has sensory issues or it can be a quiet nagging sense that there are underlying sensory processing problems.

        Below, you’ll find common and more unique “gut feelings” that might indicate a sensory processing problem in children.  These are the quieter indications that might make you furl your eyebrows or question a behavior that your child seems to show over and over again.

        Use these sensory processing red flags as a way to put the whole picture together for your child.  Any one behavior or tendency that shows up with your child may be a meaningless coincidence, however if a child presents with several items on the list below, it may be necessary to speak to your child’s pediatrician.  

        Use these sensory processing red flags to ease that gut feeling that you have and seek out the information or help that is needed for your child.

        Sensory processing red flags for parents to help identify sensory needs in kids


        Identifying sensory issues can mean there is a need not being meant. These sensory red flags are just some things to consider. One or two items on the list may not mean anything. Seeing many of the red flags listed below may mean that a consultation with your child’s pediatrician is in order.

        Sensory Processing Red Flags

        Get a free printable checklist version of this list below.
        • My child has specific behaviors during his/her day.
        • My child has strange tendencies.
        • My child seems different in many ways than other children his/her age.
        • My child has trouble “switching gears”.
        • My child has trouble with transitions.
        • My child seems “off” during outings such as the grocery store, church, or doctor’s offices.
        • My child has trouble in social situations such as holiday get-togethers, birthday parties, or classroom free time.
        • My child doesn’t seem confident.
        • My child prefers certain textures, sounds, sights, tastes, scents, positions, or movements.
        • My child avoids certain textures, sounds, sights, tastes, scents, positions, or movements.
        • My child doesn’t act like other kids.
        • My child gets upset by confined spaces.
        • My child gets upset by certain sounds like lawnmowers.
        • My child is difficult to calm down at times.
        • My child wakes up at “full speed” and doesn’t stop all day.
        • My child can not control the volume of his/her voice.
        • My child can not stop jumping/spinning/bouncing/crashing.
        • My child strictly avoids jumping/spinning/bouncing/crashing.
        • My child is drawn to specific repetitive motions or activities.
        • My child strictly avoids specific repetitive motions or activities.
        • My child seems to have a problem that is difficult to pin point.
        • My child seems to struggle to keep up with other kids.
        • My child has no fear.
        • My child has extreme fears.
        • My child seems withdrawn at times.
        • My child doesn’t seem to notice details.
        • My child seems overly preoccupied with details.
        • My child doesn’t seem to notice when they fall and get hurt.
        • My child doesn’t notice dangerous situations (age-appropriately).
        • My child avoids certain food textures.

        Sensory red flags checklist

        Do any of these gut feelings sound familiar?  There are many red flags on the list above that are conflicting signs of different problems.  Not every concern that is noted above will be seen of every child with sensory processing difficulties.  

        toddler behavior red flags

        Parents of toddlers are often the first to notice when something seems different or “off” with their child’s behavior. When we refer to toddler behavior, remember that we are referring to the way that the toddler acts or behaves in any given situation. 

        Toddler Behavior Red Flags

        When therapists refer to “behavior” in the context of a toddler’s development or therapy, they are typically talking about the observable actions exhibited by the child in various daily situations. This includes how the child responds to their environment, interacts with others, and manages their emotions and impulses. There is a lot going on in toddlerhood that we can observe!

        While it’s essential to remember that children develop at their own pace, there are signs that may prompt parents to seek guidance or evaluation from a healthcare professional.

        Here are some common toddler behavior red flags that might be connected to sensory needs and preferences:

        • Social interactions
        • Fearful of others
        • Little to no communication with others
        • Doesn’t engage with others at all
        • Won’t copy facial expressions
        • Doesn’t respond to their name
        • No stranger danger 
        • Extreme separation anxiety
        • Regression in skills
        • Repetitive actions like rocking, hand flapping
        • Rigid patterns in play and daily activities
        • Not aware of others in a room
        • Limited interest in other children
        • No interest in daily functional tasks such as dressing, feeding, etc.
        • Fearful of stimuli
        • Repetitively seeks out stimuli   
        • Difficulty managing certain foods or textures
        • Sensitive to sensory stimuli such as lights, sounds, or textures
        • Aggression
        • Behind on several developmental milestones like walking, speaking words, etc.
        • Delays in language or speech
        • Frequent meltdowns that are out of proportion for typical toddler development
        • Little to no gesture use  in communicating wants or needs
        • Regression in previously acquired skills such as self-care, language, or social skills
        • Self-injury

        Typically, at a toddler well visit appointment, the pediatrician staff will request the parent or guardian to fill out a questionnaire.  

        The parent questionnaire for guardians of toddlers can include some of the sensory red flags listed above, however it is geared toward the typical toddler development that happens in the 1-3 age range. This may be a time when sensory red flags become apparent to parents and guardians.

        A parent questionnaire for a toddler well visit, particularly when assessing developmental milestones and potential signs of Autism, may include questions related to various aspects of a child’s behavior, self-care skills, and communication. These could be related to sensory processing needs, which impact functional performance and typical development at this age. 

        Here are some sample questions that could be included:

        1 Communication: Some children with sensory needs may struggle with social skills and communication, which can impact their ability to understand, participate in daily activities, follow self-care instructions, etc. Communication support and social skill development may be necessary. Being aware of these milestones is important.

          • Is your child using words to communicate their needs and desires?
          • Can your child follow simple instructions, such as “give me the ball” or “come here”?
          • Does your child make eye contact when interacting with others?
          • How often does your child engage in babbling or attempts to speak?

        2. Social Interaction: Social skills and sensory red flags go hand in hand. For more information, check out our social skills checklist.

            • Does your child show interest in playing with other children or adults?
            • Does your child respond to their name when called?
            • Is your child able to imitate simple gestures or actions, like waving goodbye?
            • How does your child react to new people or unfamiliar situations?

        3. Behavioral Concerns: For some, activities like rocking, hand-flapping, or spinning objects may provide a calming or organizing sensory input. Noticing these behavioral habits can be a predictor of sensory needs.

          • Are there any repetitive behaviors or unusual movements that you’ve observed in your child?
          • Does your child have intense reactions to sensory stimuli (e.g., lights, sounds, textures)?
          • How does your child handle transitions or changes in routine?
          • Are there any specific fears or phobias that your child exhibits?

        4. Self-Care Skills: Taking a look at age-appropriate self care skills in children, (or the ability to complete functional tasks like dressing, potty training, feeding, etc.) is important because at the toddler age, there should be an interest in “doing things myself” or becoming more self-sufficient. A sensory red flag may mean that there sensory sensitivities and preferences that impact the child’s ability to notice or perform age-appropriate self-care tasks independently.

          • Is your child showing interest in self-care tasks like dressing themselves, feeding, or potty training?
          • How well is your child able to use utensils and drink from a cup?
          • Can your child independently perform basic self-care tasks, such as washing hands or brushing teeth?

        5. Play and Imagination: Play is the work of the child but when sensory needs predominate, play can seem habitual or repetitive as a means to support sensory preferences. This can offer a sense of predictability and comfort to some children. Noticing these play preferences may convey their needs, sensory preferences, or discomfort.

          • Does your child engage in imaginative play, such as pretending to cook, play house, or use toys to represent real-life scenarios?
          • Is your child interested in a variety of toys and activities appropriate for their age?
          • How does your child explore their environment and play with objects?

        6. Sleep Patterns: Sleep hygiene impacts functional performance of the whole family and sometimes during the Toddler years, we see a change in these habits, possibly related to sensory needs.

          • What is your child’s sleep routine like? How many hours does your child sleep at night?
          • Does your child have difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep?

        7. Feeding Habits: Sensory preferences may impact the food tolerance, resisting trying new foods, food texture issues, a tendency toward extremely picky eating, or other sensory food aversions.

          • What is your child’s typical diet like? Are there any aversions or strong preferences?
          • Is your child able to self-feed with utensils, or are they still primarily using their hands?

        8. Safety Concerns- Do “sensory” considerations seem to impact direction following, the child running off in a crowded space, not listening about touching the stove or outlets, seeming to seek out unsafe situations, or other safety aspects?

          • Are there any safety concerns or behaviors that you find challenging to manage?
          • Does your child engage in any repetitive or potentially harmful behaviors?

        It’s important to remember that these questions serve as a screening tool and not a diagnostic tool. If parents have concerns about their child’s development or behavior, they should discuss them with their healthcare provider for a thorough evaluation and appropriate guidance. This may be part of an indicator for exploring early intervention for Autism or other developmental needs.

        Every child is different, but the concerns noted above will be indications to seek out more information and issues that should be brought up to your child’s pediatrician.

        Be sure to check out our resource, our sensory processing disorder chart, to better understand how differences impact kids in different ways.

        Get a free printable checklist version of our sensory red flags checklist below.

        Parents and gut feelings about sensory processing issues


        sensory processing red flags
        You may also be interested in the free printable packet, The Classroom Sensory Strategy Toolkit.

        The Classroom Sensory Strategy Toolkit is a printable packet of resources and handouts that can be used by teachers, parents, and therapists. Whether you are looking for a handout to explain sensory strategies, or a tool for advocating for your child, the Classroom Sensory Strategy Toolkit has got you covered.


        And it’s free for you to print off and use again and again.


        In the Classroom Sensory Strategy Toolkit, you’ll find:


        • Fidgeting Tools for the Classroom
        • Adapted Seating Strategies for the Classroom
        • Self-Regulation in the Classroom
        • 105 Calm-down Strategies for the Classroom
        • Chewing Tools for Classroom Needs
        • 45 Organizing Tools for Classroom Needs
        • Indoor Recess Sensory Diet Cards
        Sensory Strategies for the Classroom

        Free Classroom Sensory Strategies Toolkit

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          red flags checklist

          Print off a copy of our Sensory Red Flags checklist. This printable tool can be a helpful resource when it comes to noticing and identifying sensory considerations that impact day to day functional performance.

          To get the printable, enter your email address into the form below. You will receive a handout via email.

          As always, if you suspect an area of need, consult with your child’s physician for individualized information and recommendations. This sensory red flags checklist and the toddler red flags list in this blog post is for informational and educational purposes only.

          This red flags checklist is also available inside our Membership Club, along with all of the printable downloads available on The OT Toolbox website. Level 2 members can also access over 1500+ resources, sensory activities, handouts, ebooks, and much more.

          Free Sensory Processing Red Flags Handout

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            Colleen Beck, OTR/L has been an occupational therapist since 2000, working in school-based, hand therapy, outpatient peds, EI, and SNF. Colleen created The OT Toolbox to inspire therapists, teachers, and parents with easy and fun tools to help children thrive. Read her story about going from an OT making $3/hour (after paying for kids’ childcare) to a full-time OT resource creator for millions of readers. Want to collaborate? Send an email to

            For more information on sensory processing, development, and how to incorporate sensory needs and preferences into daily life, check out our ebook, The Sensory Lifestyle Handbook.

            The Sensory Lifestyle Handbook walks you through sensory processing information, each step of creating a meaningful and motivating sensory diet, that is guided by the individual’s personal interests and preferences.

            The Sensory Lifestyle Handbook is not just about creating a sensory diet to meet sensory processing needs. This handbook is your key to creating an active and thriving lifestyle based on a deep understanding of sensory processing.

            About Ayres Sensory Integration

            Ayres Sensory Integration

            In this post, we are going to give you the basics of Ayres Sensory Integration. If you have never heard of it, continue reading for plenty of information and resources that will help you become more familiar with this practice. Or, if you are trained in sensory approaches and looking to refresh your knowledge, we have got you covered. Learn more about the sensory system and and sensory-based activities in this resource on Sensory.

            Ayres sensory integration and how this specialized sensory treatment impacts kids with sensory processing needs.


            You may have heard the terms Ayres Sensory Integration, of Ayres SI. Maybe you’re familiar with the term sensory integration. But what do these terms mean?

            Sensory integration has many layers, but it can be made quite simple. In fact, everyone has experienced sensory integration! Think about your senses; the way you feel things on your skin, see bright or dim light, smell a cup of coffee, or feel dizzy on a rollercoaster. Your body senses a stimulus, for example, the feeling of your shirt against your skin.

            After a few moments, you don’t think about how the shirt feels on your skin. You wear it all day long without feeling it touch you.

            This is an example of sensory integration. That sensation – the touch of the shirt to your skin – was processed and organized by your nervous system, and the nervous system decided that it did not need to process it any more. In other words, it was integrated!

            But what happens if the sensation is not integrated?

            You may have heard of someone who can feel their shirt, particularly the tag of their shirt, all day long. It may bother them so much that they cut off those tags to avoid feeling that sensation.

            It may be that somewhere along the sensory nervous system pathway, the signals for processing that touch sensation are blocked, or lost. Instead of being processed and integrated as, “You don’t need to feel this any more!”, it’s stuck in a processing limbo of, “what is this that I am feeling?”.

            Much like how a sudden closure on the freeway means that you will have to find another way to your destination, those sensory signals need to learn where to go when their path is not clear.

            Sensory integration therapy can help find a new path to that destination and turn off the signals that cause the over-response to the stimuli (in this case, the shirt).

            Who is Jean Ayres? Dr. A. Jean Ayres, an occupational therapist, psychologist, and neuroscientist, developed this theory and practice in the mid 1970s. She recognized that a child’s sensory system can greatly impact how they perceive and interact with the world around them. Dr. Jean Ayres developed specific sensory integration interventions based on her research findings over the course of her career.

            WHO IS Jean AYRES?

            Dr. A. Jean Ayres, an occupational therapist, psychologist, and neuroscientist, developed this theory and practice in the mid 1970s. She recognized that a child’s sensory system can greatly impact how they perceive and interact with the world around them. Dr. Jean Ayres developed specific sensory integration interventions based on her research findings over the course of her career.

            Since 2005, Ayres Sensory Integration (ASI) has been trademarked to differentiate this particular method from other sensory-based therapies. The term Ayres Sensory Integration, or ASI, encompasses the theory, assessments, and interventions that were developed by Dr. Ayres.

            WHAT IS SPECIAL ABOUT Ayres Sensory Integration?

            There are reasons why ASI is trademarked and other sensory approaches are not – so what makes Ayres Sensory Integration so unique? One reason why the trademark was necessary was to clarify to the public and the academic communities which evidence to correlate with ASI.

            The evidence for sensory interventions were becoming increasingly mucky – it became difficult to discern if ASI worked because so many people were calling any sensory approaches ASI, even if they did not align with the principles (Parham et al., 2007).

            To be considered true ASI, a trained practitioner must follow a specific protocol in their evaluation and treatment of their client. To start, the practitioner would evaluate their client using methods of naturalistic observation, conducting caregiver and teacher interviews, administering standardized testing, and performing clinical observations.

            After the evaluation is complete, they will determine the ways in which sensory integration deficits may be interfering with the child’s functional performance.

            Core Elements of Ayres Sensory Integration

            After determining that ASI is an appropriate intervention method for a child, the trained practitioner will develop sensory interventions that fall within the core elements of the ASI approach:

            1. Ensures physical safety.
            2. Presents sensory opportunities.
            3. Helps maintain appropriate levels of alertness.
            4. Challenges postural, ocular, oral, or bilateral motor control.
            5. Challenges praxis and organization of behavior.
            6. Collaborates in activity choice.
            7. Tailors activity to present the just-right challenge.
            8. Ensures that activities are successful.
            9. Supports a child’s intrinsic motivation to play.
            10. Establishes a therapeutic alliance.
              (Parham et al., 2020)

            DOES Ayres Sensory Integration WORK?

            Sensory integration is an on-going research topic in the field of occupational therapy. Many recent publications have suggested that ASI can be used to improve occupational performance (Koester et al., 2014; Miller, Coll, & Schoen, 2007; Pfeiffer, Koenig, Kinnealey, Sheppard, & Henderson, 2011; Roley et al., 2015; Schaaf & Nightlinger, 2007; Schaaf et al., 2013, Schaaf et al., 2015; Watling & Hauer, 2015).

            In other words, ASI is supported by research in it’s main goal: to increase a child’s participation in their daily activities.

            ASI was originally developed as a measure to address the functional abilities of children with learning and behavioral concerns. The positive outcomes of ASI have since been well-documented for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, as well as for children with learning disabilities, ADHD, developmental delay, regulatory disorder, and developmental coordination disorder.

            The theory and practice has also been modified for use with other populations and age groups, too!

            Who Uses Ayres Sensory Integration?

            Most recent research estimates that up to 95% of children with developmental delays or disabilities have deficits in sensory functioning (AOTA, 2017).

            Additionally, it is estimated that sensory processing difficulties occur in 5% to 14% kindergartners, 16% of elementary students, and 10% to 12% of people of all ages with no related diagnosis (AOTA, 2017).

            In short, the relevance for sensory integration is huge, due the prevalence of sensory deficits in individuals of various populations.

            To find out if an individual can benefit from ASI therapy, the Sensory Integration and Praxis Test (SIPT) would be administered, per the ASI guidelines. The SIPT was developed by Dr. Ayres specifically to test whether or not ASI is appropriate for an individual, and to highlight specific deficits in sensory processing.

            RESOURCES on Sensory Integration

            There are many great resources available for practitioners and families alike. See the options below to discover more about the sensory system, ASI theory, and sensory-based interventions.

            Ayers Sensory Integration and Therapy

            While Sensory integration (SI) refers to a theory developed by Dr. Jean Ayers in the 1960’s much has changed in the world since the conception of sensory integration therapy.

            We have screens, online worlds, technology, fast paced lifestyles, full schedules, various educational models and programming types, changed environments, different home lifestyles, adapted parenting styles, and many other overall lifestyle differences since the 1960s.

            The theory that our Central Nervous System (CNS) takes information from the outside world that has VASTLY changed, while our internal systems has not is an interesting one to chew on.

            We’ve had to accommodate for these different and updated needs that our world has moved into.

            What hasn’t changed is the nervous system’s ability t take information from the outside world, organize it, and use that information to produce purposeful and useful responses toward specific goals we have, physically, cognitively, emotionally, and behaviorally.

            We are able to use that purposeful information in order to perceive incoming sensory information (the sensory systems of touch, movement, pressure, sounds, tastes, joint sense, sights, and internal information) in order to determine the quality of the responses of each sensory system as they work together as a whole.

            It’s amazing when you think about it, right?!

            Then, there is the vast amount of knowledge that we have as individuals. Today, we can access information, the use of AI, and we can share that information in seconds. Today, the awareness of tools and underlying reasons why we behave the way we do is available to every individual.

            This might mean that sensory interventions can be used in not just the clinical setting anymore. Jean Ayres layed the framework for this knowledge and theories.

            References on Jean Ayers Sensory Integration

            The following are sources of information regarding Jean Ayers Sensory Integration.

            For more in-depth information on Jean Ayres’ sensory integration theory and a comprehensive exploration of occupational therapy interventions based on her principles, I recommend referring to authoritative textbooks, academic papers, and professional resources in the field of sensory integration therapy. These references can provide valuable insights and guidance for those seeking a deeper understanding and effective application of Ayres’ groundbreaking concepts in occupational therapy practice.

            American Occupational Therapy Association [AOTA]. (2017). Frequently asked questions (FAQ) about: Ayres Sensory Integration®.

            Koester, A. C., Mailloux, Z., Coleman, G. G., Mori, A. B., Paul, S. M., Blanche, E., … Cermak, S. A. (2014). Sensory integration functions of children with cochlear implants. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 68, 562–569.

            Miller, L. J., Coll, J. R., & Schoen, S. A. (2007). A randomized controlled pilot study of the effectiveness of occupational therapy for children with sensory modulation disorder. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 61, 228–238.

            Parham, L. D.., Smith Roley, S., May-Benson, T. A., Koomar J., Brett-Green, B., Burke, J. P., Cohn, E. S., Mailloux, Z., Miller, L. C. & Schaaf, R. C. (2020). Development of a fidelity measure for research on the effectiveness of the Ayres Sensory Integration® intervention. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 65, 133-142.

            Parham, L. D., Cohn, E. S., Spitzer, S., Koomar, J. A., Miller, L. J., Burke, J. P. … Summers, C. A. (2007). Fidelity in sensory integration intervention research. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 61, 216–227.

            Pfeiffer, B. A., Koenig, K., Kinnealey, M., Sheppard, M., & Henderson, L. (2011). Effectiveness of sensory integration interventions in children with autism spectrum disorders: A pilot study. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 65, 76–85.

            Roley, S. S., Mailloux, Z., Parham, L. D., Schaaf, R. C., Lane, C. J., & Cermak, S. (2015). Sensory integration and praxis patterns in children with autism. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 69, 6901220010. 10.5014/ajot.2015.012476

            Schaaf, R. C., Benevides, T., Mailloux, Z., Faller, P., Hunt, J., van Hooydonk, E.,… Kelly, D. (2013). An intervention for sensory difficulties in children with autism: A randomized trial. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 44, 1493–1506.

            Schaaf, R. C., Cohn, E. S., Burke, J., Dumont, R., Miller, A., & Mailloux, Z. (2015). Linking sensory factors to participation: Establishing intervention goals with parents for children with autism spectrum disorder. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 69, http://

            Watling, R., & Hauer, S. (2015). Effectiveness of Ayres Sensory Integration® and sensory-based interventions for people with autism spectrum disorder: A systematic review. American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 69, 6905180030.

            Sydney Thorson, OTR/L, is a new occupational therapist working in school-based therapy. Her
            background is in Human Development and Family Studies, and she is passionate about
            providing individualized and meaningful treatment for each child and their family. Sydney is also
            a children’s author and illustrator and is always working on new and exciting projects.

            Adult Sensory Processing Disorder

            sensory processing disorder adults

            In this blog post, we cover resources on adult sensory processing disorder. So often, as occupational therapists, it’s the pediatric realm that we thing about regarding SPD (sensory processing disorder). However, due to more overall knowledge of sensory processing disorder in adults, access to sensory processing disorder information, and increasing diagnoses among adults, there is more awareness. In this blog post, we’ll cover what sensory processing disorder looks like in adults, sensory overload in adults, and how to support sensory sensitive adults.

            sensory processing disorder adults

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            When it comes to sensory processing disorder, adults may struggle just as much as children. There is no better time than now to get adults the resources and tools they need to support sensory processing challenges that impact functioning.

            We all have a personal bubble, or comfort area when it comes to personal space. All of us have some level of comfort that just becomes “too much” or “too little”. Think about riding a crowded elevator. When you are in that crowded, small space for more than a minute or two, the awareness of how close others are to you becomes very apparent. Being aware of sensory processing in adulthood is a lot like that awareness!

            Sensory Processing Disorder in Adults

            A reader reached out recently and requested information related to adults with sensory processing disorder. Below is curated content on adults with sensory processing difficulties to accommodate sensory needs in order to live full and functional lives.  

            Note: The information included below (and, like everything on this website) is not a substitute for therapy assessment, intervention, or medical advice. Please contact a physician or Occupational Therapist to assess and intervene. 

            Start here by grabbing the Sensory Processing Disorder Information booklet. It’s a great resource that offers information on an overview of sensory processing disorder for all ages.

            Adults with sensory processing disorder can use these SPD resources to find answers about sensory concerns.

            Adult Sensory Processing Disorder

             This post contains affiliate links. 

            In this day, many of us are more informed on everything! The internet and accessibility of information allows us to be knowledgeable beings more so than in past generations. At our fingertips is the ability to ask any question and receive immediate answers. It might be because of this that more and more adults are recognizing their own sensory issues or needs. 

            About 5-16% of children live with sensory processing disorder.  When we think about adults who may have been suffering with undiagnosed sensory processing disorder, there are potentially many, many more individuals who struggle with sensory challenges.

            Sensory processing disorder typically presents itself as a response in various, but common ways:

            • Tactile Functioning- Clothing, being in crowds, light or unexpected touch, etc.
            • Vestibular Functioning- Riding in cars, elevators, escalators, uneven surfaces when walking, flying, amusement park rides, etc.
            • Auditory Functioning- Loud or sudden sounds, sounds that don’t normally affect others like chewing, fingernail clipping, etc.
            • Motor Functioning- Clumsy with gross motor tasks including driving, operating the vacuum,  movement changes, etc.

            Online Resources for Adults with Sensory Processing Differences

            There is a lot of information related to adult sensory processing disorder available online. These resources include:

            • Sensory overload tests
            • Sensory processing disorder adults quizzes
            • sensory integration therapy for adults
            • Adult sensory processing checklists
            • Adult SPD fact sheets

            We’ve pulled the best of these resources below:
            1. Adult Sensory Processing Differences Self-Tests- This self-test can help adults understand and identify sensory challenges they may experience. 

            2. Adult Sensory Processing Checklists- Here is another checklist for adolescents and adults to identify potential red flags of sensory processing disorder. This checklist is broken down into sensory modulation issues, sensory discrimination difficulties sensory-motor struggles, social or emotional regulation challenges, and internal regulation difficulties.

            3. Sensory Processing Checklist for Adults- Here is another, more extensive checklist for adults who suspect sensory processing issues

            4. Sensory Processing Differences Fact Sheet- This fact sheet from AOTA

            5. Read up on Ayres Sensory Integration to gain more insight into the theory of sensory integration.

            Adults with sensory processing disorder can use these SPD resources to find answers about sensory concerns.

            Sensory Processing Disorder Books for adults with SPD

            It’s very possible that adults with sensory processing differences had the challenges and sensory sensitivities as a child. As an adult, these sensory challenges may impact work, adult-appropriate self-care tasks, Instrumental Activities of Daily Living (IADLs) like caring for the home, navigating in the community, caring for children, or many other aspects of adulthood.

            Compounding the sensory overload that may occur in adults, we have greater demands: paying bills, household management, keeping children’s schedules, work tasks, social media input, mental health needs, and many other issues that impact overall wellbeing.

            We know that emotional regulation is related to executive functioning skills, meaning that challenges with “keeping it together” when sensory overload occurs impacts cognitive skills like problem solving, managing time, staying organized, setting priorities, planning and organizing, prioritizing, initiating tasks, and adapting behaviors and actions to achieve goals.

            It’s natural that as adults, we notice these sensory issues that impact daily functioning and with all of the information available, we can determine the need to seek out information that relates to us.

            We wanted to pull together a list of resources that offer information on sensory processing disorder adults may experience on a day to day basis.

            It’s important to note that self-diagnosis is not a substitute for professional evaluation and diagnosis by a qualified healthcare professional, if you think that sensory overload is something you experience as an adult.

            Only a trained specialist can provide an accurate diagnosis of SPD or any other medical condition. With that in mind, here are some things you can potentially learn from a book on the topic:

            1. Understanding SPD: Books on SPD can provide you with an in-depth understanding of what sensory processing disorder is, its symptoms, and how it affects individuals. It can explain the different types of sensory processing difficulties, such as hypersensitivity or hyposensitivity, and how they can manifest across various sensory modalities (e.g., auditory, visual, tactile, etc.).
            2. Common Signs and Symptoms of Adult SPD: A book might outline common signs and symptoms associated with SPD. It can describe how individuals with SPD may struggle with processing sensory information, leading to challenges in daily life activities and interactions. This can include difficulties with sensory modulation, discrimination, and sensory-based motor skills.
            3. Case Studies and Personal Experiences: Many books on SPD include case studies and personal experiences shared by individuals who have been diagnosed with or have lived with SPD. These stories can provide valuable insights into the challenges faced by individuals with SPD and help you relate your own experiences.
            4. Sensory Screening Tools and SPD Checklists: Some books may include self-assessment tools or questionnaires that can help you understand your own sensory processing patterns. These tools can guide you in identifying areas of sensory sensitivity or sensory-seeking behaviors that you might exhibit.
            5. SPD Coping Strategies: A book on SPD can provide strategies, techniques, and interventions that can help individuals manage sensory processing challenges. These might include environmental modifications, sensory diet plans, mindfulness techniques, or occupational therapy exercises that can be beneficial.
            6. Professional Resources and SPD Support: Books can also provide information about professional resources, such as licensed occupational therapists or sensory integration specialists who specialize in assessing and treating SPD. They may also recommend support groups or online communities where you can connect with others who have similar experiences.

            These sensory processing disorder books can support the individual seeking information on sensory issues in adults:

            Amazon affiliate links are included below.

            sensory overload in adults

            So, if you think you may have tendencies toward sensory processing challenges that impact daily task completion, it might be beneficial to take stock of what’s occurring in your daily life. We’ve previously covered sensory processing red flags for children, and that’s a good place to start, because many of the signs of sensory overload can exist through adulthood. A checklist of signs of sensory overload can be one way to start identifying needs.

            Sensory overload in adults can look different than sensory overload in children, however. Adults have greater tasks, more complex daily tasks, often juggling work, caring for children, social media input, and much more. All of this together impacts sensory overload in addition to the considerations listed below. The compounding effect is monumental.

            Adding to the impact is the effect on the whole family. Family wellness, when stressed, affects the overall family dynamics and well-being in several ways:

            • Stress levels
            • Participation in activities
            • Emotional impact and trauma
            • Strained relationships

            Each of these areas carries over to the children and other members of the family.

            Signs of sensory overload in adults (remember that not all of these sensory challenges will exist for every individual and that the existence of one or more of the following signs are not an indication of SPD):

            • Hypersensitivity (over-responsiveness) to sensory stimuli such as noise, touch, light, smell, or movement
            • Hyposensitivity (under-responsiveness) to sensory stimuli such as noise, touch, light, smell, or movement
            • Seek out intense sensory experiences, such as constantly touching objects or seeking deep pressure.
            • Avoid certain sensory experiences, such as avoiding certain textures, sounds, or movements
            • Certain types of sensory inputs are overwhelming or distracting
            • Struggles with transitions and changes in routine
            • Difficulty filtering sensory information-feeling overwhelmed by sensory input
            • Sensory overload or fatigue when exposed to excessive or prolonged sensory stimulation
            • Difficulty concentrating as a result of stimulation from the environment
            • Feelings of stress, anxiety, irritability
            • Difficulty focusing on relevant details
            • Difficulty shifting their attention
            • Easily distracted or overwhelmed by sensory input
            • Trouble adapting to new environments
            • Difficulty focusing or concentrating on tasks
            • Trouble staying calm
            • Constantly fidgeting
            • Constantly seeking tactile stimulation
            • Constantly seeks out specific sensory experiences (e.g., rocking, spinning, touching things)
            • Feeling overwhelmed in noisy or crowded environments
            • Overwhelmed by bright lights
            • Challenges with social interactions
            • Heightened anxiety, stress, irritability, or mood swings in response to sensory triggers
            • Difficulty with transitioning between tasks
            • Struggles with personal space boundaries
            • Feeling overwhelmed by strong smells or textures
            • Intense emotional responses to situations
            • Difficulties with motor tasks that require coordination
            • Feelings of “meltdown”
            • Aversions to certain tastes or textures
            • Difficulty with engaging in conversations in noisy environments
            • Difficulties tolerating textures of toothpaste or foods
            • Unable to tolerate certain textures of clothing
            • Difficulty interpreting non-verbal cues from others in social situations
            • Challenges with engaging in daily tasks

            sensory issues in adults at the workplace

            Because of the demands of everyday life, work must happen even when sensory issues impact the day to day! An adult with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) may face various challenges in the workplace, depending on the sensory input that occurs, job requirements, and levels of sensory processing needs.

            These sensory sensitivities can lead to dysregulation that impacts job performance. Some of the ways in which an adult with SPD may struggle at work might include:

            1. Sensory overload at work- Work environments can be sensory-rich and overwhelming for individuals with SPD. The presence of bright lights, loud noises, strong smells, or open office layouts can lead to sensory overload, making it difficult to concentrate, stay focused, and process information effectively.
            2. Difficulty filtering distractions– Adults with SPD may have difficulty filtering out irrelevant sensory information and may be easily distracted by background noises, office chatter, or visual stimuli. This can make it challenging to maintain attention on tasks, leading to reduced productivity and increased errors.
            3. Sensory sensitivities in the workplace- Sensory sensitivities can affect an individual’s comfort and ability to engage in certain work-related activities. For example, individuals with tactile sensitivities may struggle with wearing certain types of clothing or using equipment with specific textures. Sensitivities to smells or sounds may make it challenging to tolerate certain workplace conditions or tasks.
            4. Motor coordination challenges impacting the job- Some adults with SPD may experience difficulties with fine motor skills, gross motor skills, or both. Fine motor challenges can impact tasks that require precise hand movements, such as typing, writing, or using small tools. Gross motor challenges may affect activities that require coordination or balance, potentially impacting jobs that involve physical tasks.
            5. Work Transitions- Individuals with SPD may struggle with transitions and changes in routine. This can make it difficult to adapt to new tasks, switch between projects, or handle unexpected changes in the work environment. These challenges can lead to increased stress, anxiety, and difficulty adjusting to workplace demands.
            6. Social Interactions in the Workplace- Some individuals with SPD may face challenges in social interactions at work. Difficulties with interpreting non-verbal cues, maintaining appropriate personal space, or understanding social dynamics can make it challenging to build relationships with colleagues or navigate workplace communication effectively.
            7. Emotional Regulation in work situations- Sensory processing difficulties can impact emotional regulation, leading to heightened stress, anxiety, or emotional outbursts. Workplace stressors and sensory triggers can contribute to difficulties in managing emotions, potentially affecting interactions with coworkers and overall job satisfaction.

            Support for Adults with SPD

            For the adult with sensory processing differences, there is support. Awareness and understanding is one of the biggest steps one can take!

            Adults who have always had sensory sensitivities may be more aware or have access to information that wasn’t in place when they were a child. Looking into diagnoses such as Autism or ADHD can be part of the overall plan to seek support.

            From there, coming up with coping strategies is essential to daily task and work completion.

            Implementing a Sensory Diets for Adults can be a powerful too to support sensory needs.

            When sensory differences impact work, requesting workplace accommodations, such as adjustments to the physical environment or flexible work schedules, can help create a more supportive and inclusive work environment.

            Finally, working with healthcare professionals, such as occupational therapists, OTAs, or psychologists can also provide strategies and support tailored to managing SPD challenges in the workplace.

            May-Bensen, T. “Occupational Therapy for Adults with Sensory Processing Disorder”. OT Practice. June 2009: 15-19.

            The Sensory Lifestyle Handbook walks you through sensory processing information, each step of creating a meaningful and motivating sensory diet, that is guided by the individual’s personal interests and preferences.

            The Sensory Lifestyle Handbook is not just about creating a sensory diet to meet sensory processing needs. This handbook is your key to creating an active and thriving lifestyle based on a deep understanding of sensory processing.

            Colleen Beck, OTR/L has been an occupational therapist since 2000, working in school-based, hand therapy, outpatient peds, EI, and SNF. Colleen created The OT Toolbox to inspire therapists, teachers, and parents with easy and fun tools to help children thrive. Read her story about going from an OT making $3/hour (after paying for kids’ childcare) to a full-time OT resource creator for millions of readers. Want to collaborate? Send an email to

            Sensory Strategies for Road Trips

            road trips for sensory kids

            To the child with sensory sensitivities, a family road trip can mean sensory overload. Summer break brings long car rides as the family road trip is an essential during the summer months. But how do you prevent sensory dysregulation on a long car ride? In this blog post, you’ll find sensory strategies for road trips including ideas for road trip tips for kids with sensory issues and an oral motor sensory break that helps with sensory needs during car rides.

            Get ready for your next road trip while addressing sensory needs!

            sensory strategies for family road trips

            Sensory Strategies for Family Road Trips

            Surviving a long family road trip when a member of the family has sensory sensitivities can make a long car ride challenging. For those with sensory processing disorder, Autism, ADHD or other neurodiversities, sensory sensitivities can make long car rides difficult.

            Preparing in advance to support the sensory sensitive individual can make all the difference! In fact, the sensory strategies listed below can support any individual, as we all have differing sensory needs.

            These sensory activities for car rides can be used for any age. This is a plan to have in place to prepare for the long car ride when sensory processing needs impact the ability to sit in the car to get to the destination.

            • Create a sensory story to talk about the trip in advance. Use the travel sensory story to guide use of sensory tools during the road trip.
            • Pack preferred sensory tools. These items can be placed in the vehicle or alongside the child while travelling so they can access the sensory tools during the roadtrip. 
            • Movement breaks! Stopping in advance of breakdowns is critical. Plan out stops in advance so you know when the next stop is. If possible, plan out stops according to location. Use local playgrounds as areas to run and play during road trip stops.
            • Chew on a straw
            • Plan on brain breaks at stops
            • Blow through a straw
            • Play car games such as I Spy, or find items in the scenery and make a story.
            • Create a sensory lifestyle with built-in sensory breaks based on motivation and meaningful activities (outlined in our Sensory Lifestyle Handbook)
            • Eat crunchy snacks like pretzels
            • Offer chewy snacks like beef jerky, dry raisins/cranberries, or fruit leather
            • Drink a smoothie through a sippy cup with a straw-type top
            • Make a DIY road trip busy bag.
            • Use a “crazy straw” in a cup.  The smaller opening is great for oral motor input.
            • Make a sensory kit with fidgets or other sensory tools
            • Play “Simon Says” with mouth exercises: Suck cheeks in/puff cheeks out/Make a big “O” shape/Stretch out the tongue. You’ll find many on our Simon Says commands blog post.
            • Chew gum
            • Create a sensory diet specifically for the trip
            • Use a straw to suck and pick up pieces of paper.  Transfer them carefully to a cup using only the straw.
            • Weighted blanket or throw
            • Make a chewy snack holder (below) along with the kids to plan for sensory needs during the long car ride.
            • Use a partially deflated beach ball as a sensory cushion on the floor. The individual can move their feet on the wiggle cushion.
            sensory strategies for road trips.

            Oral motor sensory break for road trips

            If you’ve ever taken a road trip with kids then you know how nerve wracking a long trip can be for the kids and the parents.  Long road trips with the family are definitely fun.  They are certainly stressful and chaotic times with sibling love and revelry, but definitely memory-making.  Whether you have one child or 6, a road trip involves planning, especially when sensory needs are at play.

            You prepare the books, the activities, the snacks, the music, or videos.  You can prep it all, but no matter what, there will be craziness that only kids can bring. There are the potty emergencies that happen 20 minutes after you left the rest stop.  There are the drink spills that saturate the car seats.  There are spilled toys and fights that break out among sisters.  But through it all, you’re plowing 65 miles an hour to memories.  

            But, when all of this chaos is happening, you can take mini-sensory breaks that will give the kids a chance to calm down the fidgets and the wiggles.  

            As an occupational therapist in the school-based setting, I often times made recommendations to parents and teachers for kids who needed to move during the span of a class or school-day.  

            Unfortunately, when you are travelling long distances in a car on a road trip, you can’t always stop and get out to move and stretch.  There are definitely times that a rest stop is needed and those are the perfect times for kids to get out of the car and run a bit.  

            But, when you are stuck in a van or car for a while, sometimes kids just need to have a sensory break.  This is true for typical kids or kids with sensory processing disorders (and parents, too)!

            We made these snack bottles to help with calming sensory input using Twizzlers Twists.  

            Sensory Processing Disorder (and types of sensory needs, outlined in our Sensory Lifestyle Handbook) in children can present with many different sensory needs due to difficulties with modulating sensory input.  

            The long car ride of a family vacation can cause sensory overload or a lack of sensory input to kids who need help regulating input. Whether a child with sensory processing disorder is sensory seeking, under-responsive to sensory input, or sensory defensive, oral motor sensory integration activities like chewy beef jerky sticks, twizzlers, licorice chews, or fruit leather can help.  

            The repetition of chewing a licorice twist can help to calm and regulate sensory needs.  

            Related, please check out our resource on Ayres Sensory Integration for an understanding on the theory of what is happening in our sensory systems.

            Oral motor sensory input for kids with sensory processing disorder or typical kids who need a sensory break and proprioceptive input during long car rides.

            How To make a Road Trip Sensory Snack

            With kids, a road trip almost guarantees a messy car with crumbs and spills.  We wanted to create a container that would hold our Twizzlers  or licorice twists and keep the mess on the lower end.  A cute container is bonus, so we pulled out the ribbons and glue gun.  

            These snack holders will keep our Twizzlers or fruit chews ready for kids (and the parents) that need a quick sensory break during a long trip:

            Oral motor sensory input for kids with sensory processing disorder or typical kids who need a sensory break and proprioceptive input during long car rides.


            Gather a few tall plastic jars from the recycle bin.  We used recycled peanut jars and loved that the lids coordinated with our Twizzlers Twists!  

            Grab a strand of ribbon and the glue gun to make these jars something special.

            Oral motor sensory input for kids with sensory processing disorder or typical kids who need a sensory break and proprioceptive input during long car rides.
            Cut the ribbon to fit around the jar.  Using the hot glue gun, attach the ribbon.  You can layer on colors, or get the kids involved in decorating by using decorative tape or even permanent markers to decorate the snack containers.
            Now you’ll need Twizzlers candy.  We grabbed our Twizzlers Twists and  Twizzlers Pull N Peels along with all of the other must-haves for our vacation.
            Oral motor sensory input for kids with sensory processing disorder or typical kids who need a sensory break and proprioceptive input during long car rides.
            Fill the containers with Twizzlers Twists and Twizzlers Pull N Peels.  They are ready to grab and go on your next road trip with the family!
            Oral motor sensory input for kids with sensory processing disorder or typical kids who need a sensory break and proprioceptive input during long car rides.
            Oral motor sensory input for kids with sensory processing disorder or typical kids who need a sensory break and proprioceptive input during long car rides.

            More Sensory Strategies for Road Trips

            You’ll find more tools to survive Summer road trips with a sensory sensitive child that meet the interests of the child in our book, The Sensory Lifestyle Handbook. The book supports interests and motivating activities that occur naturally during the day to day tasks like a long car ride!


            The Sensory Lifestyle Handbook is a comprehensive resource offering a strategy guide to create sensory diets and turn them into a lifestyle of sensory success!

            Colleen Beck, OTR/L has been an occupational therapist since 2000, working in school-based, hand therapy, outpatient peds, EI, and SNF. Colleen created The OT Toolbox to inspire therapists, teachers, and parents with easy and fun tools to help children thrive. Read her story about going from an OT making $3/hour (after paying for kids’ childcare) to a full-time OT resource creator for millions of readers. Want to collaborate? Send an email to

            Clothing Sensitivity Red Flags

            clothing sensitivity

            You might know a child who HATES that tag in the back of their shirt.  Maybe the seam of socks need to be lined up “just right”.  Maybe you know a student who only wears shorts no matter the weather.  All of these clothing preferences might be a red flag related to a clothing sensitivity and sensory processing issues.

            Clothing sensitivity can mean we need to take a closer look at sensory issues with clothes and they specifics about the clothing: textures, fabrics, tag location, etc.

            Sensory friendly clothing can make all the difference in the world to the kiddo that struggles with these intricacies that you or I may not even notice! Even taking a moment to consider how clothing fasteners impact the sensory system can have a huge impact.

            A clothing sensitivity related to specific clothing preferences is a common red flag related to sensory processing disorder.

            Clothing sensitivity red flags related to sensory processing disorder or sensory struggles in kids


            Clothing Sensitivity Disorder

            We all prefer certain textures of clothing, however, when clothing sensitivities or the touch discrimination (sensory touch) prevents one from wearing clothing or an extremely strict preference in clothing, there may be more to look at. Tactile defensiveness can impact daily self-care and functional performance in wearing weather-appropriate clothing. Take a look at the clothing sensitivity list below.

            Because sensory processing challenges present differently in each child, there will be no list of clothing preferences that is the same for every child. There will also be no completely exhaustive list of red flags related to sensory processing issues or one that can indicate specific sensory issues.

            However, it is possible to notice sensory needs related to clothing preferences and clothing sensitivity. The red flags listed below don’t necessarily mean that a child has a sensory processing disorder, only that a more intense look at the child might be needed. If a child seems to have a number of clothing sensitivities, a full evaluation by an occupational therapist may be needed.

            Here are tips for getting sensory kids to wear winter clothing.

            Does any of this sound familiar? 



            Clothing sensitivity red flags

            Below are some examples of clothing sensitivities. These sensory issues with clothes may impact children, adults, or anyone in between.

            An individual who prefers to wear only one type of texture is not something to be concerned with. Similarly, the student who wears shorts all winter long can get by with learning in the classroom without interference. The main consideration is when clothing sensory issues interfere with daily tasks and safety, including personal hygiene considerations.

            Consider these sensory clothing red flags:

            • Prefers a specific clothing material (e.g. only cotton or only lightweight fabrics)
            • Child is bothered by seams
            • Is bothered by tags
            • Dislikes sleeves hitting wrists
            • Dislikes hems of pants hitting ankles
            • Wears only shorts even in very cold weather
            • Wears only pants even in very hot weather
            • Prefers clothing without buttons/snaps/zippers/ties
            • Sensitive to collars hitting neck
            • Unable to tolerate shoes
            • Prefers only certain socks or shoes
            • Dislikes when socks slide down in shoes
            • Prefers feet to be totally uncovered or totally covered
            • Unable to tolerate a belt or tight waistband
            • Dislikes underwear or prefers only a certain type of underwear
            • Bothered by seams in underwear
            • Bothered by length of underwear
            • Prefers tight clothing
            • Unable to tolerate jeans
            • Hates coats
            • Prefers heavy layers of clothing
            • Complains of “itching skin” with certain materials or types of clothing
            • Complains of clothing tickling the skin
            • Has meltdowns when it’s time to get dressed in the morning
            Need more information on all things sensory?  Grab this free sensory processing disorder information booklet. Its’ perfect for those new to sensory processing or for passing on to parents, grandparents, teachers, and caregivers of children with sensory struggles. 

            What clothing sensitivities have you seen?  This list could go on and on. As we all know…kids like to keep us on our toes! 

            Want this list as a printable version? Grab it here.

            Kids may experience preferences or a clothing sensitivity when they have sensory processing disorder or sensory issues.
            These red flags are related to clothing sensitivities that may be an indication of sensory challenges in kids.

            For the individual with clothing sensitivities, using preferred textures and cut of clothing is a means to support the individual’s preferences. Check out our resource on sensory clothing for specific ideas.

            One other thing to consider is the impact a tool like a weighted vest or compression garment can have on meeting sensory needs. It’s something to consider.

            Clothing Sensory Issues

            Depending on preferences, there can be various textures that one tries to avoid. Certain textures can feel uncomfortable, itchy, scratchy, or even painful. These are the most common sensory textures:

            • Rough or scratchy textures, such as coarse fabrics or rough surfaces
            • Fuzzy or hairy textures on sweaters
            • Textures that hold in body heat: flannel materials, thermal materials, or polyester
            • Textures that are tight or constricting
            • Shirts with tight necks or turtlenecks
            • Clothing with course seams
            • Clothing with scratchy or long tags

            Sensory Issues with Clothes List

            Want a printable list of our sensory issues with clothes (listed above)? The printer-friendly list is ready to go! Enter your email address into the form below and the resource will be delivered to your inbox. This sensory issues with clothing printable is also found inside our Member’s Club. Head to the free printables toolbox and then select sensory.

            Clothing Sensitivity List

              We respect your privacy. Unsubscribe at anytime.

              Colleen Beck, OTR/L has been an occupational therapist since 2000, working in school-based, hand therapy, outpatient peds, EI, and SNF. Colleen created The OT Toolbox to inspire therapists, teachers, and parents with easy and fun tools to help children thrive. Read her story about going from an OT making $3/hour (after paying for kids’ childcare) to a full-time OT resource creator for millions of readers. Want to collaborate? Send an email to

              Understanding Sensory Dysregulation

              Sensory dysregulation

              A term you may have heard when it comes to sensory processing is sensory dysregulation. What does this mean? Are there clues for dysregulation? We all have differing sensory needs, and dysregulation can look like different things for everyone. Have you ever wondered about specific sensory strategies for regulation to support a dysregulated sensory system? We’ll cover all of this in this post.

              Sensory dysregulation

              Sensory Dysregulation

              Remember your last temper tantrum? Do you remember what it felt like to be suddenly so sad, mad, and completely out of control? Most of us probably had our last true temper tantrum more recently than we care to admit.

              A majority of those emotional outbursts were probably exacerbated due to a number of reasons; lack of sleep, poor diet, undesirable environment, discomfort, or pain. Deciphering the difference between a tantrum and sensory meltdown is a must.

              One ongoing debate in the pediatric therapy world is discussing what behaviors are due to sensory-related reactions, and what behaviors are due to something else. How many toddlers (or teenagers!) temper tantrums may actually be related to their sensory experience? If it really is sensory-based, then what are the solutions?

              The OT Toolbox is here to do our best to answer your sensory-related questions. A great first step in determining whether unwanted behaviors are based on sensory experiences, is to learn about what sensory dysregulation is. To get started, here is an article about sensory processing red flags.

              Playing a huge role is understanding self regulation and the ability to select and implement self regulation strategies based on sensory needs.

              what is sensory dysregulation


              Sensory dysregulation refers to a mind or body state which occurs when the body is out of balance due to experiences in the sensory environment. Think about how sounds, textures, exercise, movement, smells, light, and other input can affect your mood. Sensory dysregulation is the result of either too much or too little stimulation for best functioning or self-regulation.

              For example, overstimulation anxiety can be a result of too much sensory stimulation that results in overwhelming worries or anxiety. This is just one way that the overload of sensory input can impact us.

              Read more about mood and affect and how these terms are connected to sensory dysregulation.

              It’s more than sensory touch and the input we receive through our skin. It’s the inability to regulate sensory input from ALL the sensory systems.

              A key component outcome of sensory dysregulation is self-regulation. There are many ways to define self-regulation, but generally, it is one’s ability to remain at an acceptable level of emotion, energy, behavior, and attention – given the demands of their environment.

               In order to achieve self-regulation, one must also have good sensory regulation. 

              Sensory dysregulation is something that anyone can experience, and most people probably have experienced a level of sensory dysregulation to some degree.

              Everyone has sensory preferences, like how loud they listen to music, or if they enjoy lots of hugs. If your preference is to have less, your systems would become out of balance with the music too loud or people getting too touchy.

              Each of us has our own limits given any situation – but once you are in tune with your body’s needs, you know when it has become too much. When the system is unbalanced, maladaptive behaviors (tantrums) occur, if no coping strategies are implemented. We covered this individualized preferences and nuances of neurodiversity in greater detail in our post on Sensory Diets for Adults.

              People with sensory processing disorder, which is an issue on a larger scale that affects a much smaller portion of the population, feel dysregulated more often and have far less ability to self-regulate. While sensory processing disorders can exist in isolation, they may be most prevalent in those with Autism or ADHD

              One example of dysregulation is the individual with sensory needs dealing with a fire drill. There are a lot of sensory inputs all at once, and navigating that stressor is distressing!

              Check out our resources at the end of this article for great coping tools! 


              Sensory dysregulation, much like emotional dysregulation, feels uncontrollable. Something is “wrong” and a person may not know what is causing them to feel “off”, or how to solve the problem. Sensory dysregulation may look and feel similar to emotional or behavioral dysregulation, that can cause temper tantrums.

              The main difference is that sensory experiences are the root cause of the behavioral responses – not social disagreements or the like. It is complicated to tease out whether the issue is behavior or sensory. Look first at the triggers.

              A simpler way to understand of sensory dysregulation, is by breaking it down into two categories: over-responsiveness or under-responsiveness to the environmental stimuli. 

              • Over-responsiveness may look like: sensory avoidant behaviors such as excessive covering of the ears, hiding, avoiding touch, or extreme picky eating. The body may be responding too much to the incoming information. One reaction is to avoided it to, remain at baseline. 
              • Under-responsiveness may look like: sensory seeking behaviors such as excessive or repetitive body movements, touching everything, making sounds, or licking/chewing on non-food items. Pushing other students while waiting in line. The body may be responding too little to typical input, to the point that the seeker looks for more of it to remain at baseline. 

              It is important to begin to recognize sensory over-and-under responsiveness and the role it plays in sensory regulation. Understanding what kind of behaviors a child has, will allow you to choose the right remedy. 

              • Over-responsive → Sensory Avoider → Need for less
              • Solution – calming activities, breathing exercises, variety of activities to slowly increase comfort level 
              • Under-responsive → Sensory Seeker → Need for more 
              • Solution: heavy work, brain breaks, fidget tools, variety of sensory experiences

              Resources from the OT Toolbox for Deep Breathing, Self-Regulation activities, Emotional Learning and Regulation, and the Sensory Lifestyle Handbook are a perfect starting point. 


              Sensory dysregulation is NOT the same as behavioral or emotional dysregulation, which may look like:

              Not sensory dysregulation:

              • Crying at the store after they were told “no”
              • Pushing their brother after he took their toy
              • Eating all foods but never what the family is eating 
              • Dumping/throwing toys after being told it’s time to clean up 
              • Covering their ears during a fire alarm
              • Screaming after a sibling teased them

              You may be thinking, wait a minute…some of those actions are sensory-based behaviors! 

              You are correct! However, just because something is related to the sensory experience, does not always mean that sensory dysregulation is occurring. 

              As an example; the sound of a fire alarm is loud auditory input, however, covering your ears during a loud sound is a normal response. If there is more of a reaction than that, for instance, if a child is inconsolable or unable to move on after the fire alarm, that may be considered sensory dysregulation.  

              Sensory Dysregulation Symptoms

              When symptoms of sensory dysregulation is in question, you should be asking:

              • What does the environment look like? Feel like? 
              • What is the child communicating with their actions? 
              • When and where does this behavior typically occur? In what similar situations does it not occur? 

              Some behaviors, like pushing, can be tricky to determine if it is sensory or behavior; Look at the trigger. The proprioceptive system can be dysregulated. Is the child pushing for sensory reasons? 

              • Bumping into things during play, crashing often, seemingly unaware of their body? Then they may have some sensory dysregulation going on that is increasing their need for input.  Pushing people who get too close, hugging too hard, or bumping into people, may also be signs of sensory dysregulation.
              • If a child pushes a friend after they did something mean, that is just poor social skills. 

              HOW CAN YOU support Sensory Dysregulation?

              If a child’s sensory system is dysregulated, there is good news: there are many ways to help! There is a catch though – there is no “one size fits all”. Trial and error is the name of the game with sensory interventions.

              Once you and your child find out what works for them and their changing environments, they will have a deeper understanding of themselves, and display improved behaviors in no time! 

              Check out these resources for sensory integration, calming exercises, self-regulation activities, and more! Also be sure to read our blog post on Ayres Sensory Integration for information on the theory behind this process, and how it all works together. It’s fascinating!

              Tactile Sensory Input:

              Heavy Work/ Propceptive Sensory Input:

              Vestibular Sensory Input:

              Combined Sensory Input:

              Deep Breathing Activities:


              If you have tried everything, and are feeling a bit lost, you are not alone! Sensory dysregulation is tricky. It should be considered alongside many other aspects of why a child reacts a certain way. In addition to behavior, emotions, and self-regulation; history, habits, trauma, and mental status can have a powerful influence on actions, too. 

              Keep trying – some things may feel like a roadblocks but there are specific action strategies you can use!

              The Sensory Lifestyle Handbook walks you through sensory processing information, each step of creating a meaningful and motivating sensory diet, that is guided by the individual’s personal interests and preferences.

              The Sensory Lifestyle Handbook is not just about creating a sensory diet to meet sensory processing needs. This handbook is your key to creating an active and thriving lifestyle based on a deep understanding of sensory processing.

              Sydney Thorson, OTR/L, is a new occupational therapist working in school-based therapy. Her
              background is in Human Development and Family Studies, and she is passionate about
              providing individualized and meaningful treatment for each child and their family. Sydney is also
              a children’s author and illustrator and is always working on new and exciting projects.