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Primary Symptoms of FASD: Sensory Processing Challenges

What do school fire drills, pep rallies, and barking dogs have in common? They are sudden loud intrusions that cause my son to become dysregulated. He has Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD).

Sensory Processing Disorder

Our five basic senses—sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell—help our brains process information and experience our environment. Most people can filter out or ignore unpleasant or unnecessary sensory input; Those with SPD cannot.

Individuals with prenatal exposure to alcohol, childhood trauma, or other neurobehavioral conditions often have difficulty with sensory processing.

People with Sensory Processing Disorder can struggle with loud noises, bright lights, the feeling of the tag in their shirt, and even certain tastes and smells. These individuals are sensory avoidant. However, some with SPD are sensory seekers. They seek deep pressure touch which actually helps their brain process information.

In addition to sensitivity to bright lights, loud sounds and certain textures and smells, SPD can appear as:

  • difficulty settling down

  • over sensitive or under sensitive to touch

  • difficulty understanding personal space or boundaries

  • fatigue

  • irritability

  • trouble falling asleep or staying asleep

These behaviors are not signs of a difficult or oppositional child but rather symptoms of a brain-based condition.


My son is both sensory avoidant and sensory seeking. Adopted internationally, he experienced early childhood trauma and is diagnosed with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. He cannot tolerate loud noise, uninvited touch or hot food. At the same time, he craves deep pressure touch.

As a little guy my son was on a mission to crash, bang, boom his way though each day. At the same time, he would jump out of his skin if you tapped him on the shoulder or lightly touched his cheek.

One adoptive mom shared her daughter has difficulty focusing in the classroom. She cannot filter out the fidgeting of other students or the hum from overhead lights.

Another mom reported frequent calls from school because her son was being disruptive in class. A little investigation revealed the issues occurred the same time each day. Mom realized her child’s classroom was near the cafeteria. The aroma of food wafted into his class daily during 3rd period causing him to become dysregulated.

Just last week my son arrived home from school and announced he was dropping out. When I asked him about his day he complained, “We had a fire drill and my teacher didn’t tell me.”

The unexpected loud interruption of the alarm combined with the immediate need to drop everything and file out of the building are overwhelming for people on the spectrum. The sudden noise from the alarm is an assault on their auditory system. Transitions are also difficult for people with trauma, FASD, or other brain-based conditions. Quickly switching gears is not in their wheelhouse.

So What Can We Do?

It’s crucial parents, caregivers, teachers, and anyone working with our kids, understand sensory challenges. People with Sensory Processing Disorder can’t just “get over it” or “ignore it”. SPD (diagnosed or not) is a primary symptom of FASD or other neurobehavioral condition. These individuals must be supported as anyone with a visible disability would be.

First, observe the person’s sensory processing challenges. Do loud noises trigger them? Do bright lights distract them? Does physical touch send them reeling? Are certain smells triggering? Once you figure out how the individual struggles, you can then work together to come up with accommodations.

Once you understand how sensory processing differences impact your child you can then provide accommodations to help them be successful. Below are some suggestions to get you started:

  • Sensory Accommodations:

  • Noise cancelling headphones

  • Provide advance notice for fire drills etc.

  • Avoid crowded, loud places such as restaurants, church lobbies, pep rally’s, school assemblies, etc.

  • Decrease visual stimuli (busy wall paper, bright or flashing lights, clutter, bright colored decor, etc.)

  • Avoid triggering odors

  • Visit places during less crowed times

  • Eliminate distractions whenever possible

  • Provide sensory rich activities for sensory seekers

  • Be careful not to over stimulate

  • Weighted blanket or vest

For a more in-depth look at SPD I recommend The Out of Sync Child by Carol Kranowitz as an excellent resource along with her companion book The Out of Sync Child Has Fun.

You know your child best. Be curious about what sensory challenges he or she exhibits and find creative solutions to help support them. Remember, SPD like FASD is a brain thing!

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