As an occupational therapist (OT), it’s a question I hear a lot: “Does my child have sensory problems?”
Involved parents notice their child’s every small aversion, every intense interest, every unusual behavior.
Is it normal that she doesn’t like her hands getting sticky? He hates the sound of the smoke detector. Maybe he has a sensory processing disorder. My kid seems to really like light-up toys. Does she like them too much?
And I’m also a parent, so I get it. I don’t want to miss any red flags while watching my daughters develop either!
Whether you’re feeling curious or panicky about your child’s development, I want to help you make sense of the sensory system. Not just what it is and what it does, but how to support it.
What is Sensory Processing?
In a nutshell, sensory processing is how our brains and bodies take in the world around us. Remember the five senses you learned in school? You might recall posters detailing those senses. The ones that are commonly understood by the general public include: taste, smell, sight, touch, and hearing.
As it turns out, there are two missing from this list! (And, no, Sixth Sense viewers; seeing dead people is not one of the “extra” senses.) These senses are related to balance and movement (vestibular sense) and body position (proprioceptive sense). They’re often neglected, but they’re important!
Various parts of our bodies are responsible for taking in information about our surroundings through the seven senses. These body parts include our eyes, ears, nose, tongue, skin, inner ear, and more. Next, our brains work hard to organize the information. Finally, they integrate it. We notice sensations, and these allow us to move, interact with, and learn in our environments. (1)
Of course, each child has a unique sensory processing system. This can account for differences in preferences from child to child.
Your daughter might love the taste of broccoli, but your son hates it. Maybe your daughter loves messy play, loud music, and flashing lights. Your son, however, can’t stand any of these things.
Does this mean your son (or daughter) has a sensory processing disorder?
No! Or, at least: not necessarily.
Sensory Aversions and Preferences are Normal
It’s normal to have likes and dislikes when it comes to sensory information! Even adults have plenty of differences across the senses. Some people like rollercoasters. Others hate them. Some like the taste of blue cheese. Others find it disgusting.
And young children have limited years of experience with all of these different tastes, textures, smells, sights, sounds, and motions. Their brains are still doing the heavy lifting that’s involved in learning and exploring these sensations.
But, sometimes, likes and dislikes tilt toward the extreme. And, of course, some children do have sensory processing disorders.
Are you wondering whether your child is one of them?
What are Sensory Processing Disorders?
It’s helpful to think about sensory processing abilities on a spectrum. The truth is that every child and adult falls somewhere between “under reactive” and “highly reactive” to sensory information. Everyone falls somewhere between “sensory seeking” and “sensory averse.” Someone might even be under reactive to some kinds of sensory information (e.g., movement) but highly reactive to other kinds (e.g., touch). It gets confusing.
Children with sensory processing disorders (SPDs) show difficulty noticing, decoding, and reacting to sensory information. Many children with SPDs have other diagnoses (e.g., autism spectrum disorder). Some don’t.
There are plenty of tests OTs use to evaluate a child suspected of a sensory processing disorder. There are ways we try to quantify how well (or not) a sensory system is working.
But, in short, professionals become concerned if a child’s sensory problems are so extreme that they interfere with daily life.
The child who craves movement to the point that his mother cannot get him off the swing in their backyard. It is a struggle throughout every day. When he is not swinging, he spins. These behaviors prevent him from engaging in conversations with the people around him.
The student who hates particular textures and cannot tolerate eating, wearing, or touching certain things. Her diet has become so restricted that she struggles to maintain weight. Her wardrobe is limited. She can’t participate in classroom art activities.
The toddler who is so sensitive to sounds that he cries, screams, and covers his ears whenever it’s noisy. He can’t tolerate voices, music, or fans. Not to mention sirens and horns! He prefers using headphones to reduce noise levels, but then he misses out on important language learning.
What to Do If Your Child Has Sensory Issues
Fortunately, there are ways in which we can help these children engage more easily in their daily lives. Here are some steps to take.
Monitor Your Child’s Specific Sensory Needs
Keep track of those likes and dislikes! Stay curious about your child’s behaviors. How do they relate to sensory information? There are checklists online to help parents understand the relationship between a child’s senses and his or her likes and dislikes. Then, keep checking in. Is your child getting more sensitive to certain sensory information? Are sensory problems interfering more and more with everyday life?
Seek Professional Help
If you think your child has sensory problems that impact their ability to live and learn, it might be time to find professional help. You may benefit from the help of an occupational therapist.
For students, contact your child’s teacher to explore the possibility of making changes to help in the classroom. If these changes do not help, ask about the possibility of an assessment.
If your child is over the age of three but not yet in school, call a public elementary school in your area, describe your concerns, and ask for an assessment. The district will offer services to those who qualify.
For children under the age of three, check out early intervention services in your state, particularly if you notice sensory problems that appear to be impacting your child’s development across various areas (e.g., motor, speech and language, social-emotional, etc.).
If you’re looking to see a professional privately, check out this directory to find a clinician near you.
Provide Materials and Activities
Sensory supports can help all children – not just those with sensory processing disorders – grow, develop, and learn.
Studies show that engaging children in sensory-rich environments, while following their lead, improves sensory processing. (2) For example, if your child hates messy play, let them explore various substances in a way that feels comfortable to them. Start with poking with one finger – or even using a utensil – before diving in up to elbows. (Don’t push it!) Gradually, your child may develop a higher tolerance for these sensations. Maybe they’ll even enjoy them!
Try to expose your child to all kinds of sensations through activities, tools, and toys. Target tactile, proprioceptive, and visual senses with Sensory TheraPLAY’s October box. You’ll find lots of cool products like Glux textured fidget putty. Check out our tips for gross motor activities to get your little one lots of vestibular and proprioceptive input. And sign up for our newsletter at the bottom of this page to get more seasonally-based tricks that focus on each of the senses!
Whatever your child’s needs – and however extreme – we’re here to help!