Sensory processing issues are difficulties with organising and responding to information that comes in through the senses. Often the child may be over-reactive, under-reactive, seeking or a combination of these three when responding to sensory input. These Issues are called sensory processing or integration disorders and can interfere with the child’s ability to participate in learning and everyday activities (i.e. playing, developing skills for self-regulation and forming friendships etc).
This guide will give you an overview of all you need to know about sensory processing issues. We answer commonly asked questions, give advice and strategies you can use at home and school to support your child.
If you are unsure if your child might have sensory processing issues, look out for our checklist (coming soon!) which will cover what are the key signs to look for and how you can help your child.
What are Sensory Processing Issues?
Children with sensory processing issues have trouble receiving, organising or responding to information that comes in through the senses. The most common sensory processing issue we see is sensory modulation disorder.
Children with this disorder have problems with their processing response to certain sounds, sights, smells, textures, movement and tastes. Without intervention, they will display signs of sensory issues such as emotional meltdowns, don’t seem to play like other children, noises upset them, picky eaters, hand flapping, seeking lots of movement or avoiding certain types of movement and have low frustration tolerance.
There are three types of responses and the child can have a mixture of these. The child can experience fluctuations between over-responsive, under-responsive and sensory seeking.
- If the child is over-responsive they will be over-sensitive, fearful and cautious. Children with this response often dislike getting their haircut, are easily distracted, can be negative and defiant, are controlling, defensive to sounds or tastes/ textures of food and have a difficult time falling asleep.
- Some children may be under-responsive which means they don’t notice sensory stimuli which are relevant and important to the situation. They have a tendency to look more passive and withdrawn. They have difficulties following directions, tend to slump or lean, do not express desire to explore their environment, are not bothered by cuts or bruises and have poor body awareness.
- Some kids sensory seek which looks like excessive spinning, jumping, twirling, smelling, licking or chewing objects, gazing at spinning objects for long periods of time, frequently falling on the floor and rolling around intentionally to get deep pressure input. Bumping into others and not observing personal space is also common.
A child can be a combination of these too. For example, the child may seek movements, be over-responsive to touch (leading to sensitivity and avoidance of certain clothes or textures) and under-responsive to certain sounds (not responding to their name).
Overall their reactions do not match well with the activity or environment. As a result, they are less likely to have successful responses to activities or new challenges. This can lead to the child giving up trying to master new skills, have poor frustration tolerance, often have behavioural outbursts and suffer poor self-esteem.
To read more about the other two sensory processing disorder subtypes Sensory Discrimination Disorder and Sensory-Based Motor Disorder click here.
Signs and Symptoms of Sensory Processing Issues
A child who is sensory over-responsive is sensitive to sensations e.g. sights, sounds, touch, movement, smells and taste. They neurologically respond too much, too frequently or for too long to sensory stimuli. This can lead to sensory overload and sensory meltdowns which are out of the child’s control and very different from tantrums. When a child is overwhelmed by sensory stimulation the behaviours you might see:
- Upset by unexpected changes
- Aggressive or impulsive
- Irritable, fussy and moody
- Unsociable, avoids group activities and has trouble forming friendships
- Excessively cautious and afraid to try new things
- Holds hands over ears to protect themself from loud sounds
- Difficulty completing work if there is too much background noise
- Sensitive to certain clothing textures, labels and seams in socks, pants
- Reacts negatively to textures on hands such as paint, crumbs and dirt
- Gags on textured foods and avoids certain tastes/smells
- Becomes anxious or distressed when their feet leave the ground and avoids climbing, jumping and playground equipment that require movement e.g. swings and slides
- Often labeled a “fussy baby” or “difficult”
These children benefit from less sensory information in their environment, an appropriate amount of “personal space”and a calming place to retreat to when things get too overwhelming.
This is when the child is less sensitive to and less aware of sensory stimuli than most children. When in the presence of sensations, the behaviours you might see are:
- Passive, quiet, withdrawn or lethargic
- Difficulty engaging in conversations or other social interactions
- Easily lost in their own fantasy world
- Excessively slow to complete tasks
- Difficulty responding to directions and needs them to be repeated
- Can be non-responsive when having their name called
- May seem oblivious to details of objects and the surrounding environment
- Tends to slump or lean on walls, chairs, desk and other furniture
- Prefers sedentary activities such as watching TV, or sitting around
- Poor internal drive, uninterested in exploring games or objects or the world around him/ her
These children benefit from a lot of sensory experiences and opportunities to explore sensory materials throughout the day. This helps them attend to and engage in learning.
Seems to want much more sensory stimuli than most children but can become more dysregulated when they get more of it. The problem with seeking is the child’s brain “tricks” them to feel they must obtain the sensation. It assigns significant importance to it and they will do it harder, faster, again and again. They often seek movement, physical contact and pressure. But sometimes what the child is seeking is not nourishing for development. Here are some behaviours you might see:
- Constantly wants control over every situation
- Does not wait for their turn, interrupts constantly
- Smells people, objects and animals
- Desire to mouth, bite or chew on non-food items e.g. clothing, toys beyond appropriate developmental stages
- Attracted to watching flickering lights
- Gazes at spinning objects for long periods of time
- Tends to make noises while doing other tasks
- Obsessed with excessive jumping, bumping and crashing activities
- Enjoys entering and crawling or squeezing through small places
- Bumps into objects and people a lot
- Frequently falls on the floor and rolls around intentionally
- Angry or even explosive when required to sit still or stop what he is doing
Since these children are not passive, giving them more stimulation can be disorganising. Sensory seekers greatly benefit from more treatment in Sensory Integration therapy.
Therapies and treatment for sensory processing issues
Unfortunately, there are no medications for sensory processing issues. But there are therapies and treatments that can help your child feel more calm and regulated. Therapists can also teach them strategies and skills to cope with sensory challenges.
Occupational Therapists with special training in sensory integration therapy will be able to provide individualised sensory treatment using playful, meaningful activities that enhance your child’s abilities to process sensory information while staying more organised and promote behavioural responses that will help with daily functioning. They will also be able to make a sensory lifestyle or “sensory diet” for your child and family. They can also work in the school or with the school team to provide classroom strategies and accommodations to support your child’s sensory issues, for example:
- For a child who is sensitive, providing noise cancelling headphones or creating a quiet space to help with regulation
- Seat child in the front row and away from windows and doors to reduce distractions
- Allowing a child to use fidget tools or alternative seating
- Making movement breaks or chance for child to move around the classroom
- Use calming activities during classroom transitions
What steps can I take to help my child with sensory processing issues
If you suspect your child is having sensory processing issues, an evaluation can be conducted by a qualified occupational therapist. They will be able to help you understand your child’s sensory processing style better and then this will make it easier to know how to help. Your child’s therapist will know how to select activities and strategies that will help your child feel more regulated and calm. Remember, “One size does not fit all”. It may take some time through trial and error to find the right fit for your child. Don’t give up! Also encourage, but never force the child to do the activities.
As every child is different, these are some potential strategies you can use to help your child now:
- Provide opportunities to play and engage in activities that include textured materials
- Provide heavy work activities e.g. help pushing shopping trolley
- Reduce visual distractions or clutter
- Provide warnings before routine changes
To learn more about what you can do to help your child, click here to see our article on 8 Things to Start Doing Today to Help your Child with Sensory Difficulties. You can also click here to check out our Kid Skills Playbox, to get your hands on the right sensory toys and tools that therapists love using and recommend.
Emily Nguyen is a Paediatric Occupational Therapist and caregiver to her little brother who has Autism Spectrum Disorder. She writes from the perspective of her experience as a therapist as well as a caregiver to a special needs family member. The blog posts are intended to inspire and educate but are in no way intended to offer medical or mental health advice. Please see disclaimer for details.