Sensory Processing: Challenges and Red Flags

Categories: Sensory | Sensory Series

In my last post, we went over some very basic concepts related to sensory processing.  In this post, we are going to dive a little deeper into what it looks like when students have sensory processing challenges, when to be concerned and then some suggestions for next steps.

The Neurological Traffic Jam

We all process sensory information and for most of us, this happens automatically and efficiently.  However, this is not the case for everyone. Jean Ayres refers to this as a ‘neurological traffic jam’ – which basically means that the information from our senses is not getting through our brain effectively.  It’s like trying to drive through downtown Chicago during rush hour – slow, frustrating, confusing and inefficient.  

Sensory Processing Disorder

The term ‘sensory processing disorder’ can also be used to describe someone who is having difficulty taking in sensory information, organizing and responding to it- or in other words, experiencing that ‘traffic jam’.  

There are different types of sensory processing disorders, but for today we are going to focus on what it looks like when someone has difficulty controlling his or her responses to sensory input. OT scholars such as Lucy Jane Miller and Winnie Dunn have furthered the research first started by Jean Ayres. For the following descriptions, I have simplified and combined information from all three to try to make this as user-friendly as possible!  I have linked to their resources at the end of the post so you can explore these ideas more in depth if you’d like. 

There are three categories that can help us think about how people respond to sensory input:   

Overesponsive –  this child may overreact or sense everything. These students are typically in a ‘flight or fight’ state, and any sensory input can be viewed as potentially threatening.  It does not take a lot of sensory input to elicit a response.    You may also hear these  students referred to as ‘sensitive’  or ‘avoiders’ according to Dunn’s model.

Underresponsive – this child  may seem unaware or not react to sensations.  This child may appear quiet, passive or withdrawn. In the classroom, these are the kids who appear to be in their own world, not paying attention.  It takes a lot more sensory input for them to understand the world.   You may also hear the term ‘low registration’ or ‘bystander’ (Dunn).

Seeking/craving– they want more and more sensation!  These kids are constantly moving, talking, touching. They love sensation.  We all know the sensory seekers.  They. Can’t. Get. Enough!

It is important to note that different sensory systems can have different profiles.  If you are a movement seeker, you may not necessarily be a seeker across all sensory systems.  If you overrespond to or avoid auditory input, that doesn’t necessarily mean you overrespond to or try to avoid all sensory input.  This is where sensory processing can get really complex.

Red Flags 

Here are some behaviors you may want to look out for that could indicate difficulty with sensory processing. Remember that we all respond  to sensory input and to some degree, we all have responses that fall in these categories.  We should be concerned when the response to sensory input significantly impacts the ability to participate in important daily routines.  

Overresponsive behaviors
  • Distressed by loud noises or busy places
  • Distressed by light touch or tags/textures of clothes
  • Difficulty regulating emotions, gets frustrated easily
  • Picky eater
  • Difficulty bathing, hair brushing, nail trimming
  • Avoids messy play
Underresponsive behaviors
  • Doesn’t seem to notice messy face
  • Doesn’t notice peers around him, may bump into others
  • May appear unfocused or daydreaming
  • Doesn’t notice sounds or respond to name
Seeking/Craving behaviors
  • Jumps instead of walks
  • Touches other people, items constantly
  • Can’t seem to sit still
  • May crash or bump into things on purpose
  • Frequently puts items in mouth

Implications for Daily Life

As Winnie Dunn said at a recent conference I attended, sensory processing isn’t the whole picture, but when you add the sensory piece to a child’s story, it can help you understand him a little better. 

On the surface, the overresponsive child could present as whiny. The underresponsive child may present as lazy.  The seeker is probably always in trouble.  But when we add the sensory piece, we may find ourselves reframing things.  We may start thinking of ways to reduce sensory input in the classroom for the overresponsive child.   For the underresponsive child, we may start to think of ways to give him the increased sensory input he needs to make sense of the world.   We might come up with ways to give the seeker more movement opportunities instead of being frustrated that he just. won’t. sit. still!!!  

Next Steps

If you are a teacher and you have concerns regarding how a student’s sensory processing impacts his ability to participate in school, you may want to reach out to the child’s parents and to your building occupational therapist. Every school will have different processes for OT referrals, and you will want to clarify that with your school administration.  


If you are a parent, start by talking with your pediatrician. In terms of sensory processing, be prepared to give examples of how it is impacting your daily life and routines. Your doctor can then write a prescription for an occupational therapy evaluation. Trust your gut and don’t be afraid to respectfully advocate for your child. Most pediatricians are wonderful, but there is still a lot of misinformation and confusion out there especially when it comes to sensory.

The STAR Institute has a symptom checklist located here.  Sensational Brain has a symptom checklist that I find easy to use – there is one for parents and one for schools.  These resources could be helpful to document your concerns in a more organized way.

What can I do in the meantime?

The best course of action is to talk with your pediatrician or occupational therapist for targeted recommendations for your child.  Every child is different, however there are some strategies that we know generally tend to work for students with certain sensory profiles.  I will get more into this in future posts, but for today I will leave you with one piece of advice – when in doubt, use heavy work.  

What is heavy work?

Heavy work is a type of sensory input that targets the proprioceptive system, or our muscles and joints.  You get this input by engaging in activities that require pushing and pulling.  In general,  it is calming and organizing to the nervous system.  Therefore, these activities are great for ALL kids!  With a little creativity, you can find natural opportunities to include heavy work during your day.  Here are some ideas to get you started!


  • Carry groceries in from the car
  • Carry the laundry basket
  • Make a fort with couch cushions
  • Open the doors
  • Household chores like wiping the table
  • Climb on playground
  • Help move furniture


  • Chair pushups
  • Wall pushups
  • Animal walks
  • Delivery jobs in the school (paper reams, pushing a cart)
  • Take down chairs in the morning
  • Erase chalkboard

That’s probably enough for today!  I have linked to a few more resources below.  We will resume the sensory series in the new year. I’m excited to continue share different ways we can think about and help meet student sensory needs.  Up next, some holiday themed posts!

References and Resources

This blog is for informational purposes only.  The information provided is general in nature.  Please consult your child’s occupational therapist for specific recommendations.  


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