Sensory Dysregulation: What it is and How to Help
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 you have an imbalanced central nervous system (your brain) 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 fast and unsafe movements. That is a dysregulated child.
A child’s behavior can not only give us clues that they’re experiencing dysregulation, but they can also tell us what they need to get back to a state of regulation.
The latter can sometimes require more refined detective work. For example, some kids are pretty black and white: they cover their ears in a crowded store. No mystery there… the sound dysregulated them and they need some quiet.
But other kids like to keep it a mystery and make us work harder to decode their behavior.
Common Signs of Dysregulation
Keeping in mind that every child is different, including the way their nervous system responds to stress and sensory input in the environment, there are a few telltale signs that scream, SENSORY 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 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)
How Sensory Dysregulation Can Sneak Up on You:
Children can experience dysregulation after an accumulation of sensory triggers earlier in the day, or even days before.
Like for us… right around Christmas vacation or during the end of the year excitement, my daughter has meltdown after meltdown. The triggers can range from anything like the color of the cup or the way I pushed her chair in too fast, but really there’s no actual trigger.
Rather, her nervous system is shot and maxed out from trying to process and regulate with all the different changes and out of the ordinary routine.
Some neurodivergent kids are really good at “holding it together” for certain periods of time, only to unleash the dysregulated dragon breath when you least expect it.
My daughter’s propensity for dysregulation is clear when we’re at a playground, but it’s subtle. You’d never guess the level of dysregulation that’s brewing beneath the surface, underneath the giggles and taking turns and holding hands she’s doing with kids she just met (honestly she impresses me, I could never make friends that easily).
But sure enough, here comes the meltdown.
After about 30-45 minutes of unstructured play in the sun, the tiny morsels of sand between her toes and sweaty skin sticking to her pants was too much for her to tolerate.
I witness other kids whine about going home, but nothing that isn’t solved by a reminder of snack coming up soon.
But my neurodivergent daughter, dysregulated from play, has a million and one complaints about how everything on her body feels, that I grabbed her hand too hard and that she hates the way my hair looks when it’s in a ponytail (ouch, kids can be so harsh!)
In those moments it’s hard to remember, but I try hard to listen to my inner therapist saying,
“Laura, this isn’t her fault. She’s a sensory sensitive child, completely dysregulated from her play. She’s having a hard time.”
What Do I Do If My Child Is Dysregulated?
While triggers for dysregulation can 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 bring your child back to a state of regulation.
Hot tip: Try to notice signs of your child escalating before they get too dysregulated and utilize these strategies then. It’s harder to pull a child out of dysregulation than it is to prevent it from happening.
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 dimly lit area (if indoors)
- Take them 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 recommend creating a go-to sensory corner in your house with your child’s favorite sensory tools to help prevent dysregulation. Click here to see my amazon store favorite finds to add to a calming sensory corner (contains affiliate links)
Looking for more support to understand your child’s sensory dysregulation and how to support them? Work with me! I offer 1:1 parent coaching so I can help you make sense of sensory (see what I did there?)