Signs & Symptoms

Sensory Sensitivity

Is your child overwhelmed by loud noises, bright lights, and stinky smells?

Parents often notice sensory sensitivities at a young age. Some children refuse almost all foods based on smell or texture. Other children seem not to notice when they need to urinate or have a bowel movement. Some children cannot be in loud places or avoid messy activities that other children seem to love.

Every child is different. Some children are pickier eaters than others. Some children prefer to stay neat and clean rather than being willing to try messy foods. Some children love noise, activity, new sights and smells.

Sensory sensitivities become an issue when day-to-day life is significantly impacted. If a simple adaptation can be made, these sensory problems may not require supports from a professional.

Examples of common sensory issues are as follows:

  • Parents find they are unable to get Johnny to wear clothes
  • Joey will only wear clothes that are void of tags, zippers, collars or waistbands, and he is insisting on wearing sweatpants and t-shirts every day
  • Sally will only eat yogurt or cheese

Parents generally bring these concerns to the pediatrician and are often met with a “wait and see” suggestion. Certainly, it is important not to jump to a hasty conclusion. On the other hand, if significant sensory differences are having an impact on your child’s life, it can be helpful to take a careful look at your child’s growth and development.

What do challenges with Sensory Sensitivity look like?

  • Showing sensitivity to sight, smell, sound, taste, touch or texture?
  • Complaining of bright lights?
  • Refusing to wear certain textures, like jeans or socks with seams?
  • Having trouble with certain fabrics, like velvet or satin?
  • Avoiding loud and busy places, like school cafeteria or the auditorium?
  • Running out or covering ears when things are noisy?
  • Acting afraid of auto flush toilets or fire alarms?
  • Demonstrating sensitivity (i.e. gagging, refusals, protests) to texture, smell, and presentation of food?
  • Refusing to walk on grass, to play in the sand, or to touch Play Doh?
  • Saying water hurts his skin?
  • Seeming annoyed by patterned wallpaper?

Why is Sensory Sensitivity happening?

Well-known developmental psychologist Jean Piaget said that infants build knowledge of the world through motor-sensory trial and error. They learn as they assimilate information and accommodate their developing schemas, which means that children learn and expand on knowledge. For example, they begin to categorize things they see, hear, touch, taste and feel. Children use motor and sensory systems to explore the world from this young age, and this process of discovery aids young brains in developing. 

 

As you may imagine, differences in your sensory processing can have a major impact on day-to-day life. Certain stimuli may not be well tolerated or may not be noticed. However, these psychologists do not see sensory differences as a stand alone disorder.

 

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD): The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Medical Association encourage parents and practitioners to be cautious with such terms as SPD. The reason for this caution is a body of medical research suggesting that sensory processing challenges may be symptoms of several different recognized medical conditions. There is not  sufficient evidence in the research to suggest that sensory processing challenges occur alone as a “disorder”. For this reason, the medical community urges treatment of sensory sensitivities to be a part of a comprehensive treatment plan for a child. Even though SPD is not a valid diagnosis, your child may still benefit from treatment for sensory symptoms.

How can I manage Sensory Sensitivity at home?

If your child has significant sensory challenges, a disability may be present.

Consider a comprehensive evaluation. Competent specialists recommend a neuropsychological evaluation to determine the best course of treatment.

Pursue only evidence-based treatments. A comprehensive treatment plan may include some combination of occupational therapy, physical therapy, behavioral therapy, play therapy, language therapy, tutoring, school-based supports, social groups, or other therapies. Understanding your child’s profile in its entirety can help you to prioritize treatment and to look for supports that are research-based. Many treatments that may be suggested to you might not have evidence to support their use in treating children.

For Autism Spectrum Disorder, more than any other diagnosis, many treatments are suggested that may not have merit. You can use a trusted website to check out a treatment and to see whether it has met the standard set for research-based, effective treatment. See the Association for Science in Autism Treatment for more information on evidence-based treatments for autism. http://www.asatonline.org

Try these strategies at home for your sensitive child:

 Home suggestions for the child who is very sensitive

 Food sensitivities

  • Introduce new foods a little at a time. Be consistent and be patient. The most common method that occupational therapists use to teach children to tolerate foods is the Sequential Oral Sensory approach (SOS).

The program allows a child to interact with food in a playful, non-stressful way, beginning with the ability to tolerate the food in the room and in front of him/her; then moving on to touching, kissing, and eventually tasting and eating foods” [2].

Introduction of foods follows the following hierarchy:

  • tolerates food
  • interacts with food
  • smells food
  • touches food
  • tastes food
  • eats food
  • You might first simply require the child to tolerate the food on his or plate and then interacting with it several times before actually eating it. Many children need to try a new food 12-20 times before deciding that they like it. Don’t give up.
  • When introducing new foods, the SOS model encourages playing with your food and doesn’t view this play as a bad thing. This approach never forces children to eat food. It also encourages fun activities prior to a feeding session:
  • 1) Gross motor movement (swinging, obstacle course)
  • 2) Oral motor activity (blowing bubbles or using whistles)

Clothing sensitivity

  • When dressing your child who is sensitive to collars and waistbands, make sure you offer some give and take. Maybe this time, your daughter will be willing to wear some dress shoes but refuses to wear a skirt. Perhaps, the next time, your daughter will wear a skirt as long as it has an elastic waistband. Progressively and patiently adding sensory inputs can help your child develop tolerance. Allowing for these concessions can go a long way in developing flexibility in your child and in avoiding conflict. Some sensitive kiddos feel like wearing a tighter shirt (e.g., Spandex) under long sleeve shirts or coats helps them tolerate clothing.
  • If your child cannot stand scratchy tags, cut them out. Some sensory issues are simply not worth fighting. Try some simple strategies like removing tags before pursuing expensive treatments.

Sensitivity to light and sound

  • Be aware of situations that just won’t work for your child. If you have a sensory-sensitive child, you may avoid certain places. For example, a sensory-sensitive kid may not be able to handle a movie theater, luau, or a concert. As a parent, it can be difficult at times to steer clear of these activities, but it may be worth it to avoid the meltdowns, throwing up, or intense anxiety these may cause your child. If this activity is very important to your family, consider introducing these activities in baby-steps, as described above.

How can Clear Child Psychology help with Sensory Sensitivity?

If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of his or her learning, relationships, or happiness, it’s time to seek professional help.

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Once we understand your child’s needs, we will help families get connected to the right specialists. No more guesswork, no more wasted time and resources.

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