Sensory issues could be behind unusual or distressing behaviors that you’ve been observing in your child. Like extreme reactions to sights and sounds. Or, poor motor control and body awareness. Get key facts all parents should know.
Do you have a child who seems to constantly crash into people? Either because he’s a little clumsy, or because he seems to think it’s fun? (At least to him, if not to the folks being crashed). Or, perhaps you have a kid who always seems to be walking on tippy-toes. Even when she’s not reaching for something. Almost like she’s training to dance ballet in the Nutcracker? Or, perhaps you have a child who gets stressed out at strobe lights or cries at certain noises?
All of these could be signs of sensory processing issues. And many kids with learning differences or ADHD also have some level of sensory issues. If your child sometimes has reactions that seem a little out of sync with the folks around him, read on to learn more about what might be going on. Here’s an overview of the key facts you should know.
What’s Meant By Sensory Processing Disorder or Sensory Issues?
Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) or sensory processing issues describes a condition where the brain has difficulty processing and responding to information that the body takes in through its senses. This may lead to a lack of response to stimuli where one would be expected. Or, it can lead to unusual, inappropriate or troubling responses to stimuli that seems otherwise ordinary to most people.
Kids with sensory processing issues can be oversensitive to environmental stimuli, under sensitive or both.
The most common example of sensory issues is an aversion to tags in clothing or seems in socks. (Tagless shirts and other clothing items are now commonplace. And, you can now also get seamless socks fairly easily.)
What Senses Are Involved?
We all learn in grade school that humans process information about the world around them through five senses. The five senses of sight, touch, smell, hearing and taste. While these basic principles are true, turns out they are not a complete picture of how we process information. We have two additional senses that help us process and control how our physical body operates in its environment. These are the proprioceptive system and the vestibular system. And, problems with any one or more of these seven senses leads to sensory processing issues.
The Traditional Five Senses
Sensory processing issues can arise with any of the traditional five senses. And, these may be easier to recognize. So, for instance, when a kid has an extreme reaction to loud noises or bright flashing lights, it’s easy to notice. Or, if she has strong reactions to relatively mild smells (like detergents and cleaning products), it’s probably hard to miss the look of disgust or the loud complaints. And, you’ve probably seen kids with problems with certain food textures or tastes that seem relatively common. These types of reactions that seem out of sync to some degree with other people experiencing the same sensations can be signs of problematic sensory issues.
But, issues may be less obvious when it comes to the whole-body oriented senses. Those types of sensory issues may look more like behavior issues than actual involuntary physical responses.
Senses Associated With Body Awareness
The proprioceptive system is a body awareness function. It tells your brain where your body is in relation to other objects in your immediate environment. And, it helps you position your body in relation to those objects. So, this system helps with your motor control and how to move. You find these receptors in the joints and ligaments.
Kids who have proprioceptive receptors that aren’t processing very well are hyposensitive. They crave input that stimulates these motor controlling receptors. So, they seek out things like jumping, bumping and lots of crashing into things and other people. They also crave deep pressure. The type that comes from tight bear hugs.
In contrast, kids who have overly active proprioceptive receptors are hypersensitive. Their receptors have difficulty processing where their body is in relation to its environment, including other people. So these kids may also do a lot of bumping into things, but it’s not intentional. These kids may also have difficulty accurately judging the amount of force they are applying in a particular moment. So they may inadvertently slam things, or squeeze and pinch too hard.
Senses Associated With Body Orientations & Movement
The vestibular system also tells your brain where your body is in relation to its environment by processing information regarding your head position and movement. You find the vestibular receptors in the inner ear. This influences your ability to control balance and body coordination.
Kids with underactive vestibular senses are hyposensitive. They seek constant and intense motion. So, activities involving speed, jumping and spinning top their favorites list. Even in situations where it’s dangerous or inappropriate activity. Or they may love being tossed in the air or thrown on a bed – repeatedly.
Kids with overly active vestibular senses are hypersensitive. They may seem overly protective of losing their balance. They may hate activities like riding bikes, or scaling playground equipment. Or, perhaps, they detest those balance beam activities you often see in the kids’ gymnastics class. Even when the beam remains firmly planted on the floor. The sensation of falling even 3-4 inches seems intolerable.
SENSORY ISSUES VS. SENSORY PROCESSING DISORDER
Many children who have been diagnosed with learning differences, attention issues and/or behavioral disorders also experience dysfunctional sensory processing issues of some kind. And, most kids on the autism spectrum will have some degree of sensory processing problems or SPD.
For some kids, severe sensory processing issues can be extremely disruptive. They can interfere with daily functioning, and create significant personal distress, including sensory overload. And, you’ll find many people referring to this condition as Sensory Processing Disorder.
No Official Diagnosis.
But, while Sensory Processing Disorder has a name, it’s not actually recognized as an official diagnosis. And, this has created some degree of controversy within the medical and mental health community.
For instance, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has issued a policy statement advising health care professionals against using SPD as an independent diagnosis. Rather, the AAP directs professionals to consider other established developmental disorders such as autism, ADHD, developmental coordination disorder, or anxiety disorder.
Similarly, in issuing the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the American Psychiatric Association decided to exclude SPD as an official diagnosis.
But The Condition Is Real.
Some scientists, however, are diligently working to show that a scientific basis exists for distinguishing SPD from other disorders. They are cultivating research to show that kids with SPD have observable and quantifiable differences in brain function. And, for developing an array of tailored treatments designed to address sensory processing issues.
Sensory Processing Disorder or “sensory issues” may not have an official diagnostic code, but it is very much real. And, even though pediatricians and psychiatrists don’t recognize SPD as an official diagnosis, most of them do recognize that sensory processing issues can present debilitating obstacles that must be addressed.
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Symptoms & Behaviors
Since SPD is not an official diagnosis, there’s not necessarily a standard checklist of agreed symptoms to assess. But these are the types of symptoms or behaviors you will likely see in a child with sensory issues:
Kids Who Are Overly Sensitive to Ordinary Common Stimuli
- Negative reactions to types or elements of clothing like tags or seams; aversion to jackets, pants, wool or rough cloth.
- Dislikes walking on sand
- Doesn’t like having hair brushed or combed
- Finds hugs or common touches painful
- Painful reactions to loud noises or strong smells
- Intense dislike of certain foods, colors, fabrics, sounds
- Difficulty settling down for sleep
- Overwhelmed by noisy or bright spaces
- Frightened by loud noises such as fireworks or thunder
- Inability to tolerate bright flashing lights like cameras or strobes
Kids Who Are Under Sensitive to Ordinary Common Stimuli
- Unusual pain tolerance
- Frequently plays too rough for other kids
- Irresistible impulses to bite nails, fingers, pencils, shout, eat chalk
- Lacks body awareness and often invades personal space of others
- Sensation-rich daredevil behavior like riding a bicycle or scooter at excessive speeds
- Constantly touching everything around him
- Frequently bumping or crashing into walls or people on purpose
Kids With Motor and Balance Oriented Issues
- Poor posture and constant slumping
- Excessive clumsiness
- Difficulties with fine motor tasks involving buttons, snaps and/or laces
- Poor coordination and reflexes
The STAR Institute for Sensory Processing Disorder has published a detailed symptoms checklist broken down by different age groups from infants through adults that helps place different signs in context.
Treatments & Interventions
If you suspect that your child has sensory issues, an occupational therapist (OT) can provide an evaluation and assessment. In a formal assessment, you should receive a written report with recommendations for specific treatment activities.
In addition to providing an assessment, an OT can help your child learn to handle issues with sensory inputs and challenges in an appropriate manner. Therapy will typically involve structured physical activities designed to regulate sensory input. This may involve some form of sensory integration therapy. Or, involve the implementation of a sensory diet. Or both. Working with an OT can also help children develop better emotional regulation skills.
Sensory Integration Therapy
OTs employ sensory integration therapy to help kids reach an ideal level of sensory regulation. This involves structured therapeutic physical contact, often in a setting outside the home, most likely a sensory gym. The activities may include a variety of repetitive movements involving spinning, crashing, and jumping in a controlled environment. And, they may utilize designated equipment such as ball pits, special swings and ladders, and trampolines or oversized pillows. An OT will tailor the program to the specific needs of the individual child.
A sensory diet involves a program of physical activities and accommodations tailored to give a child the unique sensory input he needs. And, it may include a program of activities that you can do at home.
Because SPD is not a recognized diagnosis, insurance generally won’t cover treatment for it. But, because sensory processing issues occur so frequently with other recognized disorders, you may still be able to incorporate some appropriate sensory-based interventions as a component of an overall comprehensive treatment plan.
Simple Strategies To Try At Home
Even without direct intervention with a trained OT, there are many simple strategies that you can try at home to help kids with sensory issues. Particularly if you’re dealing with a child who needs more sensory input. The absolute easiest one is deep pressure. If your child seems overly worked up, try giving him a big bear hug. Meaning an all-body hug with a very tight squeeze that lasts a bit longer than normal. Or, try squeezing different parts of his body – like squeezing his arms firmly in different spots moving from forearms up to shoulder. (All done in a low key fun manner.)
Also, there’s the very popular weighted blanket. A lot of parents love these, and it was definitely one of the best purchases I’ve made. From the first day I bought one, it has helped my kid calm down more quickly at night and fall asleep.
Check out 99 Sensory Activities for Any Child for inspiration for more simple activities you can implement at home.
Long Term Prospects: What The Future Holds For Kids With Sensory Issues
For most people, sensory processing issues appear to get better over time and become less of an obstacle to being able to function appropriately. Many factors may contribute to this.
First, some issues simply resolve on their own. Or, at least, they decrease to a point where they’re less intrusive and disruptive to daily living.
Also, significant treatment through occupational therapy can lead to some degree of desensitization for problematic stimuli. Or, therapy helps develop coping mechanisms and other strategies to manage sensory issues.
And finally, simply growing up can help. As kids’ bodies grow more mature, they may become better able to manage sensory issues on a neurological level. Or, they become more motivated to tolerate certain conditions to fit in socially.
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