What are sensory processing issues?

A child’s brain receives a steady stream of sensory information—from the smell of cookies baking to the feeling of shoes rubbing against her feet. Most children can “tune out” or “filter” that information as needed. They can deal with unexpected sensations, such as a loud crash on the playground.

But children with sensory processing issues may be oversensitive or undersensitive to the world around them. When the brain receives information, it gives meaning to even the smallest bits of information. Keeping all that information organized, and responding appropriately, is challenging for them.

All children can be finicky or difficult at times. But children with sensory processing issues can be so emotionally sensitive that doing simple daily tasks is a constant challenge. Certain fabrics or tags in clothing might irritate them. On the other end of the spectrum, they might have a high tolerance to pain and not realize when they’re in a dangerous situation.

How common are sensory processing issues?

There hasn’t been enough research into sensory processing issues to know how many children have them. One small-scale study suggested that as many as five to 16 percent of school-age children do. .

What are the symptoms of sensory processing issues?

Symptoms of sensory processing issues can range from mild to severe. Here are some common symptoms:

Hypersensitivity: Hypersensitive (or oversensitive) children may have an extreme response to loud noises or notice sounds that others don’t. They may dislike being touched, even by adults they know. They may be fearful in crowds, reluctant to play on playground equipment or worried about their safety (being bumped into or falling)—even when there’s no real danger.

Hyposensitivity: Hyposensitive (or undersensitive) children lack sensitivity to their surroundings. They might have a high tolerance for or indifference to pain. They may be “sensory seeking,” meaning they have a constant need to touch people or things—even when it’s not appropriate.

They may also have trouble with personal space or be clumsy and uncoordinated. They might be constantly on the move and take risks on the playground, accidentally harming other children when playing.

Some children with sensory processing issues show signs of both hypersensitivity and hyposensitivity. They may react in one or both of the following ways:

  • Extreme response to a change in environment: Children may be fine in familiar settings but have a meltdown in a crowded, noisy store. These meltdowns can be scary for parents and children, since children who are oversensitive might have trouble stopping once they get started.
  • Fleeing from stimulation: Children who are undersensitive might run away from something that’s too stimulating. Or they might run toward something that will calm them down. For example, they might zip across the playground toward a familiar teacher without paying attention to the other children they’re jostling.

What skills are affected by sensory processing issues?

For children with sensory processing issues, dealing with sensory information can be frustrating and confusing. Here’s how it can affect certain skills.

  • Resistance to change and trouble focusing: It can be a struggle for children with sensory processing issues to adjust to new surroundings and situations. It can take them a long time to settle into activities. They might feel stressed out when asked to stop what they’re doing and start something new.
  • Problems with motor skills: Children who are undersensitive to touch may avoid handling objects. This is a problem because playing with and manipulating objects is a crucial part of development—one that helps children master other motor-related tasks like holding a pencil or buttoning clothes. They might appear clumsy due to poor body awareness.
  • Lack of social skills: Oversensitive children may feel anxious and irritable around other children, making it hard to socialize. Undersensitive children, on the other hand, may be too rough with others. Other children might avoid them on the playground or exclude them from birthday parties.
  • Poor self-control: Children who feel anxious or overstimulated may have trouble controlling their impulses. They might run off suddenly or throw a noisy new toy to the side without playing with it.

How are sensory processing issues diagnosed?

Start taking notes about the behaviors and symptoms you are seeing in your child and when they occur. You might also ask your child’s teachers about behaviors and symptoms they’ve noticed at school.

All this information will be helpful to the specialists who will evaluate your child. When you’re ready to consult with professionals, here are some good places to start:

  • Talk to your child’s pediatrician. Explain your child’s symptoms, and share your notes. The doctor might recommend a comprehensive assessment. They may refer your child for screening by a specialist, either at her school or in a professional practice.
  • Consult with the specialists. The evaluator might ask you to help fill in the blanks of your child’s development by sharing information about problem behaviors. This may include when the behaviors started and when they tend to happen. If you have found ways to calm or balance your child’s sensitivity issues, be sure to mention this.

What conditions are related to sensory processing issues?

The professionals evaluating your child will likely want to rule out two other disorders that have symptoms similar to those of sensory processing issues: ADHD and ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder). Unlike sensory processing issues, these two disorders are listed in the DSM-5.

  • ADHD: Children with ADHD often show signs of sensory processing issues, but a child with sensory processing issues may not meet the criteria for having ADHD.
  • Autism spectrum disorder: Most children with autism spectrum disorders have sensory processing issues, but not all children with sensory processing issues show signs of autism spectrum disorder.

What can be done for sensory processing issues?

Parenting a child with sensory processing issues is no easy task. Your child may be inflexible or bossy. She may be unable to control her behavior at all. Yet there are ways you can support your child and make life easier for both of you. Here are some ideas to try.

  • Learn as much as you can. Understanding the signs of sensory processing issues is a great first step. You can also learn about treatment and therapies for sensory processing issues..
  • Provide safe and appropriate outlets. Help your child learn what things are “safe” to touch. Provide places where she can go to feel safe yet included in play with peers or siblings. You can also coach her on ways to “escape” situations before things get out of hand.
  • Use your knowledge to avoid sticky situations. For example, if noisy toys and machines cause your child anxiety, ask your other children not to play with loud instruments and toys around her. And be mindful about firing up the lawnmower and running the vacuum cleaner.

Connect with your child’s school, chances are they will have noticed some “red flags” and will be able to help get your child tested and supported if needed.

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