Teaching & Learning

Sensory Overload

Victims of sensory processing disorders find the everyday unbearable.

Growing up can be difficult for children. The stresses of fitting in, homework, and even the day-to-day monotony can be a challenge. But for those with sensory processing disorders, daily life can be almost unbearable. The interactions and stimuli can force them to overreact, triggering something like a fight-or-flight response.

Julia Wilbarger, an assistant professor in the kinesiology department’s occupational therapy program, wants to find out why normal irritations drive people with this disorder to such extraordinary actions.

First recognized in the 1960s, sensory processing disorders create an increased physiological reaction to atypical textures, smells, and sounds, making sufferers respond as though they’ve been put in danger. About 5 percent of the population is affected by some form of sensory processing disorder.

“These kids can struggle in school, not because of their cognitive capacity, but because their capacity to have legible handwriting, to [keep track of] their papers, to sit still, or to really pay attention when there is other competing noise in the environment is affected,” says Wilbarger. “I’ve worked with children who are almost unable to go to school, children who can only wear one thing. They can hardly wear one pair of socks, and their poor moms drive all over the place to find them socks that don’t itch them or bother them.”

In her studies, Wilbarger attaches electrodes to patients and monitors their reactions to different types of stimuli as she looks for the line that divides typical from atypical responses.

One group she has studied is children who are adopted internationally. Her subjects included children who had been in an orphanage for a year or more, as well as children who had been exclusively in foster homes or adopted immediately.

“[Adopted] children who looked like they had less caretaking, less social interaction, less physical interaction are the children with the highest risk,” she says.

In the past year, Wilbarger has also been studying the relationship between women with fibromyalgia, a disorder that causes chronic pain due to pressure, with people who are affected by heightened sensory reactions. Her research has shown similarities between these women and people with sensory processing disorders. She hopes to use this as a model for her research.

“Because I am a clinician at heart, somewhere I want to start looking at intervention studies,” Wilbarger says. “Now that we know it exists, we know something about it, what can we do about it?”

Published in the Spring 2011 issue


  • Joan Pope March 21, 2011

    I have suffered for over 10 years with fibromyalgia and I can assure you there is a link with sensory processing disorders. Unfortunately the medical community still doesn’t want to acknowledge the problem exists. Hope your research discovers ways to make life more enjoyable.

  • Sheila Frugia October 29, 2011

    I completely agree with Joan Pope’s response. I have suffered with fibromyalgia for about 16 yrs and I agree that it is linked to sensory processing disorder. I did not know about SPD until we started taking my grandson for evaluation appointments to see if he had autism. after learning about the symptoms, I started researching to see if SPD was a part of fibromyalgia, because I felt that a number of these symptoms related to me. The problem has gotten much worse after undergoing chemo-therapy about a year and a half ago. It’s very frustrating because even though I am considered disabled now, I constantly have a want to be able to learn something so I can work and be successful but feel like the harder I try, the more confused I get and just have to take long breaks from trying to study until I can feel that I can focus again. With the constant interuptions of everyday life and just trying to keep up with everyday activities is very frustrating. I hope your research discovers some type of therapy for people like us, because I am tired of medical doctors just wanting to medicate us with more drugs.

  • Knee High Socks June 19, 2012

    Nice article.

  • Renae February 6, 2014

    I have always been hypersensitive to everything – touch, sounds, movement, tastes, smells, lights. I’ve always hated being in crowds and doing sport. My parents complain that they hardly ever get to hug or kiss me (when I DO let them, it’s for their sakes because I’m silently screaming with pain inside). I get motion sickness with everything; only a few seconds in a moving car is enough to make me nauseous. I hate wearing shoes, clothing tags. Whenever I have the house to myself, I close all the blinds and don’t wear clothes at all – it’s just a lot less painful that way. Even sounds and light and tastes cause me actual physical pain. I have always found it hard to get to sleep at night, even when my mind isn’t racing and I’m not worrying about anything. My brother would poke me and startle me as a child and even now, years later, I feel like that was traumatic. It just hurt so much. People always criticise me for being oversensitive, but I can’t seem to help it. I found it hard to make friends at school. I always stood/sat apart from my classmates because otherwise life was too painful. The other kids must have thought I was unfriendly – but I like and care about people, I really do! I am only friends with introverts because they’re not so overwhelming. It’s not that I don’t like extroverts – they’re just too much to handle.

    Three years ago my problems escalated into the hell that is fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome and anxiety. I strongly believe there is a connection. The more stimulating my day is, the worse my fibromyalgia pain is. The less stimuli I come in contact with throughout the day, the less pain I have.

    How do I overcome these problems as an adult? I’m no longer a child with a highly plastic brain, but surely there must be something. I’ve tried all the traditional stuff for fibromyalgia – diet changes, gentle exercise, relaxation techniques, massage, etc. – but it only helps a bit with managing it. I want to GET RID OF the SPD, FMS, CFS and GAD!!!! I have so many dreams but I feel like they’re out of my reach until I fix my limbic system or whatever it is that’s wrong with me.

  • Emma April 2, 2014

    Excellent article. I’m a parent (with fms) of a child with spd + autism. I had started to wonder if I, myself were on the spectrum due to sensory sensitivities (noises, smells, lights etc) and my grand dislike of being touched and of being social in general, then following major surgery I developed full blown fibromyalgia syndrome. It scares me that my child could have a chance of going from spd affected to fms affected in the future.
    The hardest thing sometimes is for me to remember that typical people don’t feel what I feel. They don’t feel what my child feels and we can’t hate them for randomly reaching out and touching us or talking really loudly at us. Even though sometimes that stuff could seriously make me scream and it DOES make my child melt down.

  • Kristi January 16, 2015

    I was dx with fms 6 months ago. I also grew up suffering from sensory processing disorder. I was in PT, OT, Speech therapy. I definitely believe there is a real connection between the two. Doctors or researchers could validate both conditions by studying the correlation. I have a 8 year old daughter who struggle so with the same challenges and I hope with research her future will be less challenging than my current circumstances.

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