Our sensory system is responsible for receiving and interpreting sensations from our surrounding environment. It receives information through touch, taste, vision, smell, sound and movement to help us understand our environment and respond appropriately.
If a child’s sensory system isn’t ‘working properly’ they have difficulty experiencing their environment and are often unable to organise and integrate all the information they are receiving from their surroundings – they are therefore unable to respond. These kids may struggle coping with the stress of sensory experiences and react with strong emotional behaviours.
This may manifest in the following types of behaviours:
- Strongly disliking being cuddled
- Avoid getting their hands dirty
- Avoiding certain textures
- Avoiding movement based activities e.g. swings, slides
- Show sensitivity to certain clothes
- Refusing to eat food of certain texture
- Difficulty moderating their ‘touch’ resulting in rough play with others/toys that may be interpreted as aggression
- Dramatic tantrums or mood swings – often a reaction to a change in the environment
Kids with sensory processing issues can be oversensitive or under-sensitive to sights, sounds, textures, smells and tastes.
Over-sensitivity can lead to feeling overstimulated by the environment and all the different sensory messages the brain is receiving. This can lead to difficulties in organising and processing information, poor concentration and difficulty interacting with other people leading to poor social skills.
Under-sensitivity can lead to kids seeking sensory experiences e.g. constantly touching people/things or having high tolerances for pain.
ADHD & Autism
These two conditions are related to sensory processing issues – although it is important to remember not all children with sensory difficulties have these diagnoses.
Studies have shown between 42-88% of kids with autism have sensory processing issues or abnormalities. They may display exaggerated or avoidant responses to sensory stimuli or fascinations in specific sensory experiences e.g. are fascinated with rubbing certain textures repeatedly
For children with ADHD, researchers suggest they have greater difficulties processing sensory information and the brain may not be receiving and processing sensory information properly which results in poor responses to their environment.
Support for Sensory Processing Issues
First and foremost, intervention by a health professional is required. Generally, this is provided by an occupational therapist with knowledge of numerous approaches and activities to support the child and their family. The goal of this is to help kids integrate and respond to sensory input appropriately, recognise triggers and build physical and behavioural skills to manage these, and help them in general feel more comfortable in their environment.
Parents can also support their kids at home by learning as much as they can about sensory processing issues, taking note of the situations their child finds tough and helping provide spaces that support optimal engagement with the environment, and preparing for changes in routine and environment that may spark intense reactions.
Ausderau, K., Sideris, J., Furlong, M. et al. J Autism Dev Disord (2014) 44: 915. doi:10.1007/s10803-013-1945-1
Cheung, P. P. P., & Siu, A. M. H. (2009). A comparison of patterns of sensory processing in children with and without developmental disabilities. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 30(6), 1468-1480. doi:10.1016/j.ridd.2009.07.009
Council, H. C. (2015). Supporting Children with Dyspraxia and Motor Co-ordination Difficulties. Routledge.