Understanding Sensory Issues in Children
Sensory issues occur when a child has a difficult time receiving and responding to information from their senses. Children who have sensory issues may have an aversion to anything that triggers their senses, such as light, sound, touch, taste, or smell.
Common symptoms of sensory processing issues may include:
- frequently putting things in their mouth
- resisting hugs
Unfortunately, not a great deal is known about sensory issues or why some children experience them but not others.
Keep reading to learn more about what children do if they have sensory overload and what can be done to help them process sensory information.
You may have learned about the five senses in elementary school, but the truth is you experience the world with more than five senses.
Sensory processing is divided into eight main types:
- Proprioception. This is the “internal” sense of awareness you have for your body. It’s what helps you maintain posture and motor control, for example. It’s also what tells you about how you’re moving and occupying space.
- Vestibular. This term refers to the inner ear spatial recognition. It’s what keeps you balanced and coordinated.
- Interoception. This is the sense of what’s happening in your body. It may be best understood as how you “feel.” This includes whether you feel hot or cold and whether you feel your emotions.
- Five senses. Lastly, there are the 5 common senses — touch, hearing, taste, smell, and sight.
Sensory issues have previously been called a sensory processing disorder. The disorder, however, isn’t officially recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5).
Instead of its own disorder, many doctors and experts believe sensory issues are a component of another condition or disorder. That’s one reason why little is known about the issue and how best to treat it.
But what is known can help parents, healthcare providers, and other caregivers understand their child’s experiences and provide support.
Symptoms of sensory processing issues may depend on the way in which a child processes sensations.
Children who are easily stimulated may have hypersensitivity. Children who aren’t as easily stimulated experience fewer sensations and have hyposensitivity.
The type of sensitivity your child has may largely determine what their symptoms are.
For example, children who are hypersensitive often react as though everything is too loud or too bright. These kids may struggle being in noisy rooms. They may also have adverse reactions to smells.
These outsized reactions may cause:
- a low pain threshold
- appearing clumsy
- fleeing without regard to safety
- covering eyes or ears frequently
- picky food preferences
But children who are hyposensitive crave interaction with the world around them. They may engage more with their surroundings to get sensory feedback.
In fact, this may make them appear hyperactive, when in reality, they may simply be trying to make their senses more engaged.
symptoms of sensory hyposensitivity
- a high pain threshold
- bumping into walls
- touching things
- putting things into their mouth
- giving bear hugs
- crashing into other people or things
It’s not clear what causes sensory issues in children. It’s also not clear if this can occur on its own.
Some doctors and healthcare providers believe it to be a symptom of another issue, not its own issue.
However, despite not being an official disorder, some research has shed light on which kids are more likely to develop sensory issues and why.
A 2006 study of twins found that hypersensitivity to light and sound may have a genetic component. If one twin was overly sensitive, the chances were higher that the other twin would be too.
That study also revealed that children who are fearful or anxious may show more sensory issues when dealing with tactile stimuli like brushing their hair.
Beyond the possible connection in genes, sensory issues may also occur more frequently in children who were born prematurely or ones who experienced birth complications.
Possible abnormal brain activity could change how the brain responds to senses and stimuli.
Many doctors don’t believe sensory issues are their own disorder. But what is clear is that some people do have issues processing what they feel, see, smell, taste, or hear.
In most cases, sensory issues occur in children. Many of these children are on the autism spectrum. Adults on the spectrum can experience sensory issues, too.
Other conditions or disorders connected to sensory issues include:
Developmental delays are also not uncommon in people with sensory issues.
It’s important to note, however, that children with ADHD experience hyperactivity for a very different reason than children who have sensory issues.
People who have ADHD may have trouble concentrating or sitting still. People with sensory issues may struggle to sit still because they crave sensory interactions with the world around them, or are bothered by their environment.
Sensory issues aren’t an official condition. That means there is no formal criteria for a diagnosis.
Instead, doctors, educators, or healthcare providers who work with children who have issues with processing sensory information work off what they see in the child’s behaviors and interactions. Generally, these sensory issues are highly visible. That makes a diagnosis easier.
In some cases, professionals may use the Sensory Integration and Praxis Tests (SIPT) or the Sensory Processing Measure (SPM). Both of these tests can help healthcare providers and educators better understand a child’s sensory functioning.
There’s no standard treatment for sensory issues. However, some options have emerged as viable solutions.
An occupational therapist can help a child practice or learn to do activities they normally avoid because of sensory issues.
A physical therapist can develop a sensory diet. This is a regimen of activities that are designed to satiate the craving for sensory input. This can include doing jumping jacks or running in place.
Sensory integration therapy
Both of these treatment options are part of sensory integration therapy.
This approach is supposed to help children learn ways to respond to their senses appropriately. It’s designed to help them understand how their experiences differ so they can properly gauge a more typical response.
While there are reports of people being helped by sensory integration therapy, its effectiveness hasn’t been proven.
There’s no cure for sensory issues. Some children may experience fewer with age, while others may just learn to cope with the experiences.
Some doctors don’t treat sensory issues by themselves, but rather target the symptoms during overall treatment for the diagnosed condition, such as autism spectrum disorder or ADHD.
If you believe your child has problems processing what they sense and has no other underlying medical condition, validated treatment options may be limited.
Because it’s not considered an official disorder, not everyone is eager to treat or speculate on treatments that haven’t been reliably shown to be effective in changing behaviors.
Our senses tell us a great deal about the world around us — from how it smells to how you’re placed within it.
If your child has a hard time gathering and interpreting those sensory inputs, they may show signs of sensory issues. These may include difficulty with balance and coordination, screaming, or being aggressive when wanting attention, and jumping up and down frequently.
But treatments, including occupational therapy, may help children and adults who have sensory issues learn to cope with the world around them. The goal of treatment is to reduce overreactions and find healthier outlets for these sensory experiences.
How Occupational Therapists Can Help People With Autism by Lisa Jo Rudy
Sensory Integration Therapy and Autism by Lisa Jo Rudy
Autism and Sensory Overload by Lisa Jo Rudy
Why Childhood Anxiety Often Goes Undetected (and the Consequences) by Roy Boorady, MD
Sensory Seeking and Sensory Avoiding: What You Need to Know by Amanda Morin
Encouraging Good Sleep Habits by Ken Schuster, PsyD
How to Help Children Manage Fears by Rae Jacobson
How Can We Help Kids With Self-Regulation? by Child Mind Institute, Inc.
Therapy in the Real World by Juliann Garey