What do these two children have in common?
- A hyperactive kid who’s uncontrollably squealing, laughing, not listening to a word you say, and
- A kid who’s completely melting down, covering their ears complaining about the sound of the running water being too loud
They’re both experiencing sensory dysregulation.
As an Occupational Therapist, I educate parents and other educators on how sensory processing challenges can impact learning and behavior. I teach tools and strategies on how to help regulate a child. But in order to teach regulation strategies, we first must recognize and be able to identify dysregulation.
What is Sensory Dysregulation?
Sensory dysregulation is when your central nervous system (your brain) is imbalanced due to an excess of sensory input, or not enough sensory input.
For example, my daughter has a low threshold for most sensory input, which means she is hypersensitive to sensory input (read about her tactile sensitivity here). Anytime she perceives too much sound or messy input, she often has a melt down and becomes dysregulated. Our most recent daily battles have related to her clothing sensory issues, particularly with socks.
Children who have a high threshold for sensory input can also show signs of dysregulation, but it might look different. For example, some kids can’t get enough movement. They need more and more. These movement seekers may run and run, but instead of becoming calmer and more regulated, you notice: shrieking, drooling, and extremely fast and unsafe movements. That child is dysregulated.
Children can experience dysregulation after an accumulation of sensory triggers earlier in the day, or even days before. For example, right around Christmas vacation or during the end of the year excitement, my daughter will have meltdown after meltdown. It’s usually not about anything particular, but her nervous system is just shot and maxed out from trying to process and regulate with all the different changes and out of the ordinary routine.
What are Some Signs of Dysregulation?
Dysregulation is a state, anyone at anytime can experience moments of dysregulation, though children who hare neurodivergent are more prone to dysregulation.
Below are some signs of dysregulation (this is not an exhaustive list). Each child is different and may exhibit different signs than the ones below.
- Uncontrollable laughter (this is common for movement seekers, and many adults think this signifies that the child is enjoying it, but it can often mean dysregulation)
- Fast and hard movements
- Speaking fast (or In a way that you can’t understand them)
- Excess saliva (it doesn’t always look like drooling, sometimes they could just have an extremely wet mouth
- Unable to follow instructions (if you ask them to do a simple task, they either won’t hear, or are unable to follow through)
- Impulsive (especially with unsafe movements)
- Dilated pupils
- Shrieking or high pitch yelling
- Making illogical or unrealistic requests one after another (signaling they really don’t know what they want, they’re just dysregulated)
What Do I Do If My Child Is Dysregulated?
While triggers for dysregulation can often vary and look different depending on what sensory profile the child has, there are some common attributes of a calming, regulating environment that can help.
- If you notice your child is dysregulated, try to redirect them from the dysregulating activity and offer some of the following:
- Firm pressure or tight squeezes to the arms and legs
- A dim lit area (if indoors)
- Take outside if the indoor space is too loud and overstimulating
- Take indoors if the outdoor space is too loud, bright and overstimulating
- A quiet space or some low, slow instrumental music
- Lavender scent (candles, spray, diffuser oil)
- Deep breaths with eyes closed
I would highly recommend creating a go-to sensory corner in your house with your child’s favorite sensory tools. Click here to see my amazon store favorite finds to add to a calming sensory corner (contains affiliate links)