At this very moment, you are being bombarded with sensory experiences. What sounds do you hear? What do you smell? What does the texture of your clothing feel like? Are you hot or cold? For most of us, it’s not until we really stop and think about it do we realize how much sensory input we are processing at the same time.

“Most adults and children are able to receive these sensory messages and turn them into appropriate motor and behavioral responses,” says Katie Shaffer, occupational therapist at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. “Take the loud siren of a fire truck. The noise may startle us—but it also tells us to pay attention and move out of the way. Once the fire truck passes, we quickly tune out the noise and forget about it. A child with a sensory processing disorder hears the siren and may become frightened, confused or overwhelmed—and is typically unable to ‘turn off’ the response on his or her own and in a timely manner.”

To the observer, the child’s tears and anxiety look like an overreaction or tantrum. In reality, children with a sensory processing disorder experience a true physiological “fight or flight” response to the fire truck’s blaring siren and staccato horn.

“It’s not just sound that triggers these overwhelming physical and emotional reactions,” says Shaffer. “The feeling of a seatbelt across the chest or the taste, smell and texture of a juicy orange can be so unpleasant and uncomfortable that it can spark anxiety, fear and sometimes extreme behaviors.”

According to Shaffer, there are different subtypes of sensory processing disorder.

“While some children are over-responsive, others may be under-responsive to sights, sounds and touch,” says Shaffer. “Children with this condition have deficits taking in, interpreting and responding appropriately to sensory input. There is broad spectrum under the umbrella of sensory processing disorder.”

“Our senses provide important information about the world around us,” says Gina Missel, occupational therapist at St. Louis Children’s Hospital. “When we are unable to properly integrate this information, it can have a negative impact on emotional, social and intellectual development.”

According to Missel, the challenge is often differentiating between normal quirks or developmental phases and a true sensory processing problem. That is why it is important for parents and teachers to be aware of the red flags for sensory processing disorder.

“Most of us have sensory preferences—we don’t like to have sticky hands, or we are frequently annoyed by the tags or labels in our clothing,” says Missel. “Over time, we develop coping mechanisms—such as cutting the tags out of our shirts. However, when responses start to negatively impact your child’s daily life, you may want to talk with your pediatrician about a referral for further evaluation with an occupational therapist.”

“We are trained to identify and treat sensory processing disorders,” says Shaffer. “A lot of our therapy involves fun, play-based interventions. We give children the skills and language they need to better understand their feelings. Working together, there is a lot we can do to help them become less anxious, self-regulate and participate in the normal activities of childhood.”