If you’re familiar with the term “sensory overload,” you have an idea what sensory processing issues are. Sometimes called sensory processing disorder or SPD, these issues happen because the brain has trouble organizing information from the senses.
Children with sensory processing issues can be oversensitive to sights, sounds, textures, flavors, smells and other sensory input. This can make a trip to a toy store or trying a new dish at a restaurant an overwhelming experience for them. Other children with sensory processing issues are undersensitive to information they receive through the senses. This can lead to other problems.
Sensory processing issues can impact a child’s social skills. It can also cause difficulties in the classroom.
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.
There’s growing awareness of sensory processing issues, but it’s still controversial in medical circles. It doesn’t appear in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the guide used by doctors and therapists to diagnose learning, behavior and attention disorders.
Also, difficulty with sensory processing is not one of the 13 disabilities covered by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). However, children with symptoms may be eligible for special education services if they’re found to have another issue, such as a learning disability, that’s interfering with their educational progress.
There hasn’t been enough research into sensory processing issues to know how many children have them, or exactly what causes them. One small-scale study suggested that as many as five to 16 percent of school-age children do. But there’s no other research or evidence to back that up.
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.
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.
Sensory processing issues aren’t in the DSM-5. So they can’t technically be “diagnosed.” But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a way to find out if a child has sensory processing issues.
Start taking notes about the behaviors and symptoms you’re seeing and when they occur. You might also ask the child’s teachers about behaviors and symptoms they’ve noticed at school.
All this information will be helpful to the specialists who will evaluate the child. When you feel that it is time to consult with professionals, here are some good places to start:
- Parent should Talk to the child’s pediatrician. Explain the child’s symptoms. The doctor might recommend a comprehensive assessment. They may refer the 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 the 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 the child’s sensitivity issues, be sure that these are mentioned.
The evaluating professionals will likely want to rule out two other disorders that have symptoms similar to those of sensory processing issues: ADHD and 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.
Once the child is identified as having sensory processing issues, the parents can seek treatment and support from professionals. Here are some options to be considered:
Occupational therapy can help children with sensory problems feel less overwhelmed and learn to cope with challenging situations. It may be available through your school district. You can also find occupational therapists in private practice.
Sensory processing issues aren’t recognized as a disability under IDEA. Therefore, having sensory processing issues alone does not qualify the child for special education services. However, if the consensus is that the child needs special education services, the school may test her and identify her as having a similar issue that is covered by IDEA. This would allow her to have occupational therapy as part of her Individualized Education Program (IEP).
Another option may be for the child to receive occupational therapy or other services under a 504 plan. These plans are less restrictive in the types of disabilities covered.
Parenting a child with sensory processing issues is no easy task. The child may be inflexible or bossy. She may be unable to control her behavior at all. Yet there are ways parents can support their child and make life easier for everyone. Here are some ideas of what parents can try at home, that can help.
Learn as much as they can. Understanding the signs of sensory processing issues is a great first step. They can also learn about treatment and therapies for sensory processing issues.
Keep track of their child’s behavior issues. Knowing the patterns can help them anticipate tough situations for the child.
- Provide safe and appropriate outlets.Help their 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. They can also coach her on ways to “escape” situations before things get out of hand.
- Use their knowledge to avoid sticky situations.For example, if noisy toys and machines cause their child anxiety, they should ask their other children not to play with loud instruments and toys around her. And they should be mindful about firing up the lawnmower and running the vacuum cleaner.
- Children with sensory processing issues may be oversensitive or undersensitive to the world around them.
- Having sensory processing issues alone doesn’t make a child eligible for special education services. However, there are other ways to get help at school.
- There are many ways to help a child with sensory processing issues at home and in situations she finds stressful.
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