Many of the children we work with have difficulties processing everyday sensory information. Their senses may be over or under-sensitive to stimuli at different times, and these sensory differences can impact their behavior and have lasting effects on their development.
Children on the autism spectrum may behave in a way that some might not immediately link to sensory sensitivity. Children with sensory sensitivity issues can experience sensory overload, and too much information can cause anxiety, stress, and possibly physical pain. To help prevent children from being withdrawn or exhibiting challenging behavior due to sensory overload, we’re going to look at some of the effects of sensory sensitivity and ways to help alleviate discomfort.
Sensory Sensitivities: Hypersensitivity vs. Hyposensitivity
Sensory processing issues can be hard to understand because they affect children in different ways, and symptoms can range from mild to severe.
Hypersensitivity: Oversensitive children have an extreme response to stimuli. For example, they might run away from loud noises or notice distant sounds that others do not. It’s common for these children to be scared of big crowds and to shy away from playground equipment. They may also dislike being touched, even by close family and friends.
Hyposensitivity: Under-sensitive children are less aware of their surroundings. They might have an indifference or high tolerance to pain. They could also engage in sensory-seeking behavior, meaning they have a constant need to touch things and people, even when it is not appropriate. Under-sensitive children also can have trouble with personal space and might be clumsy or uncoordinated.
Some children with sensory processing issues also show signs of both hypersensitivity and hyposensitivity. Below, we cover the five senses and how children respond to different stimuli whether they are over or under-sensitive.
- Poor depth-perception
- Problems throwing, catching, and disconcerting objects
- Central visions might be blurred, but perhaps is sharp
- Peripheral vision is blurred, but central objects appear magnified
- Sensitivity to light and difficulty sleeping when near a light source
- Distorted vision
- Images appear fragmented or give off flashes of light
- Prefer focusing on a detail rather than the whole object
To help children cope with light sensitivity, you can make changes to the environment by providing them with sunglasses or a visor. You can also reduce the amount of light by removing fluorescent lighting or using blackout curtains. For children who are under-sensitive to light, you can use bright, bold visual supports like cue cards to help facilitate effective communication and establish a routine.
- Does not notice or acknowledge certain sounds
- Enjoys banging on objects and doors
- Attracted to crowded, noisy places
- Difficulty concentrating due to distracting background noise
- Sounds are magnified or become muddled and distorted
- Able to hear distant conversations
To assist children who are sensitive to loud sounds, you can provide ear plugs or a headphone set and play soothing music to help calm them when agitated. It is a good idea to talk to the child and prepare them before they enter a noisy, crowded area as well. You can also shut doors and windows to reduce external noise. To help gain the attention of children who are under-sensitive to sound, try getting on their level and speaking more slowly and clearly
- Little to no sense of smell
- Fails to notice extreme odors, even their own body odor
- Licks items to better understand what they are
- Smells can be intense or overpowering.
- Dislikes perfumes, shampoos, detergents, fabric softener, animal orders, etc.
If your child is sensitive to scent, consider using unscented soaps and shampoos, and avoid wearing perfume to make the environment as fragrance-free as possible. For children who are less sensitive to smells, try using strong-smelling products to keep them from handling other, inappropriate strong-smelling items, like trash or human waste.
- Enjoys very spicy foods
- Shows symptoms of pica, like eating non-edible items such as stone, dirt, soil, grass, metal, etc.
- Has a restricted diet because some flavors are too strong and overpowering
- Dislikes some foods because of texture and enjoys smooth foods like mashed potatoes or ice cream
As long as your child’s diet has some variety, a more restricted diet to accommodate their taste and food texture sensitivities isn’t necessarily a problem. If they do not like the texture of certain foods, try pureeing them instead.
- Has a high threshold for pain
- Might be unable to feel food in mouth
- Enjoys heavy objects on top of them, like weighted blankets
- Chews on inedible objects, including clothing
- Holds on to others tightly
- Enjoys smearing foods and other messy substances on surfaces
- Being touched is uncomfortable or painful
- Dislikes having hands and feet covered by clothing
- Dislikes washing or brushing hair
- Finds clothing tags distracting or unbearable
- Only enjoys wearing certain types of clothing or textures
For under-sensitive children, introducing them to items that are okay to manipulate and smear like Play-Doh, putty, or cornstarch and water can help calm them. Slimes and sensory bins are a great way to stimulate sensory for sensitive children, and recipes are easy to find online. Also, consider finding alternative items to chew on, such as straws, hard sweets, or latex-free tubes.
If your child is oversensitive to touch, comforting touches like hugs might actually be painful to them. Always approach them from the front and warn them if you are about to touch them. You can also turn clothing inside out so there are no seams, remove clothing tags, or purchase tagless clothing if they are distracted by the texture of their garments.
We are always prepared to help identify areas of concern and develop a program to meet your child’s personal needs. If you are interested in learning more about our therapy services, contact us today and schedule a tour or evaluation.