Sensory processing differences are when a child has trouble handling the information their senses take in—things like sound, touch, taste, sight, and smell. Besides these common senses, there are also two other less well known ones that can be affected—proprioception, or a sense of body awareness, and vestibular sense, which involves movement, balance, and coordination.
Kids with sensory processing differences experience too much or too little stimulation through these senses. They may also have difficulty integrating sensory information—for example things that they see and hear simultaneously, like a person speaking—might seem out of sync for them.
Note: These problems are sometimes referred to as sensory processing disorder (SPD), even though psychiatrists don’t consider it an actual clinical diagnosis.
Signs to look for:
Hypersensitive kids are extremely reactive to sensory stimulation, and can find it overwhelming.
- Refuse to wear clothing because it feels scratchy or irritating—even after cutting out all the tags and labels-or shoes because they feel “too tight.”
- Be unable to tolerate bright lights and loud noises like ambulance sirens
- Be distracted by background noises that others don’t seem to hear Be fearful of surprise touch, avoid hugs and cuddling even with familiar adults
- Be overly fearful of swings and playground equipment Often have trouble understanding where their body is in relation to other objects or people
- Bump into things and appear clumsy Have trouble sensing the amount of force they’re applying; so for example, they may rip the paper when erasing, pinch too hard or slam objects down.
Hyposensitive kids are under-sensitive, which makes them want to seek out more sensory stimulation.
- Have a constant need to touch people or textures, even when it’s not socially acceptable Not understand personal space even when kids the same age are old enough to understand it
- Have an extremely high tolerance for pain Not understand their own strength
- Be very fidgety and unable to sit still Love jumping, bumping and crashing activities Enjoy deep pressure like tight bear hugs
- Crave fast, spinning and/or intense movement Love being tossed in the air and jumping on furniture and trampolines.
Mood swings and extreme behaviors:
Kids with sensory differences sometimes exhibit extreme behaviors like screaming, and throwing violent tantrums all because the physical sensations involved are overwhelming to them.
They may have surprisingly wild mood swings as a reaction to a change in the environment. For instance, a first-grader might be fine in a quiet setting with a calm adult. But place her in a grocery store filled with an overload of visual and auditory stimulation and she might melt down, i.e. have a severe tantrum and isn’t likely to stop, whatever a caregiver might do, until she is exhausted.
In addition to this “shutting down” because of sensory overload, a child might also lash out, or become aggressive. Or she might flee—a fight-or-flight response. If a child dashes out across the playground or parking lot, oblivious to the danger, it may be because she is heading away from something upsetting, which may not be apparent to the rest of us, or toward an environment or sensation that will calm her system.
Occupational therapists (or OTs) are the specialists who work with kids who have sensory differences. Your child may be referred to an OT at his school, or you may want to find one who is in private practice. OTs engage kids in physical activities that are designed to regulate their sensory input, to make them feel more comfortable, secure, and able to focus.
There are no scientifically sound studies proving that the work occupational therapists do with kids who have sensory processing challenges is effective. But many parents have found that the therapies and exercises help kids to feel better and function better. “It works like a reset button,” one mom reports.
Every child’s sensory differences will be different, so before therapy can begin the OT will need to evaluate your child through tests and by observing him and talking to teachers and caregivers. Then the OT will come up with a sensory treatment plan, sometimes called a “sensory diet,” that is custom-made for your kid’s needs.
More on this topic here: https://childmind.org/article/sensory-processing-faq/