What is it?
Our senses gather information from the world around us. Then, our nervous system deals with or processes the input. This sensory processing is the foundation of many of our basic daily functions.
Our body and brain work as a team to process what we see, hear, feel, and otherwise take in.
The input is:
- filtered - sorted or put into categories
- integrated - joined with or combined
Then we respond. For example, when we see and smell food, we feel hungry and bring the food to our mouth to feel, taste, chew, swallow and digest.
Every person has their own way of processing the senses.
Most people are aware of these senses:
There are also three lesser-known senses that affect your sensory processing:
- Vestibular - your balance and equilibrium; reacts to movement or stability
- Proprioceptive - your awareness of your body’s position
- Interoceptive - your awareness of how you feel inside, for example: physical sensations such as hunger, thirst, temperature, pain, and the need to use the toilet
Some children have difficulties with sensory processing. They receive information from their senses, but their nervous system does not process the input effectively. Because of this, they have trouble responding appropriately, self-regulating, and functioning in social situations.
These children can be hypersensitive to sensory input. They may over-respond with meltdowns or dysregulation. Or, children may be hyposensitive and under-respond. They may seem to ignore others, or to be less aware of what is happening around them.
Children may experience hypersensitivity to some experiences, and hyposensitivity to others. For example, a child might be a picky eater because they are hypersensitive to food’s tastes, textures and smells. The same child could be hyposensitive to sound, and not notice their teacher calling their name in a noisy classroom.
Our sensory processing skills develop as we grow. Infants depend on a parent to help them deal with hunger, toileting, changes in temperature, and other sensory cues. As children grow, they begin to recognize and respond to these cues from their body. They learn what to do when they feel hungry, warm or cold, or need to use the toilet. They also start to process information that they gather from the world outside, like temperature, sound volume, and food tastes.
How do I know?
All people like to receive information about the world in their own way. They have their own sensory preferences. One person may prefer to read instructions while another likes to listen to them. One person might love spicy food while their friend always orders mild dishes. Some people can comfortably wear any fabric or texture, but others are very particular about what they wear and how it feels on their body.
Most children are both hypersensitive (they over-respond) and hyposensitive (they under-respond) in different ways, at different times. When sensory preferences interfere with what a child wants or needs to do, parents and caregivers may need extra support.
When a child is hypersensitive to sensory input, they may be more sensitive to what goes on around them. For example, they may:
- Be upset by unexpected sounds such as the hand dryer in a washroom, the sound of a dog barking or a bell at school
- Cover their ears when loud noises occur
- Dislike certain clothes or feel uncomfortable wearing clothing
- Dislike and avoid grooming tasks, such as hair cutting, nail trimming, or hair washing
- Have a strong reaction to being touched unexpectedly
- Eat only certain foods or even get upset if their food looks different
These children often avoid sensory input they dislike. They may become anxious and avoid foods, clothing or experiences they are sensitive to. This may be an obstacle to participating in an activity or sport. Learn more about managing sensory preferences related to being active, here.
Children who are hyposensitive need more information to understand sensory stimuli.
- Not respond to their name being called, especially in busy places or when involved in a task
- Have a high pain tolerance and respond less when they get hurt
- Not respond to instructions
- Touch peers or objects more than others
- Jump, run, or crash into items or people
- Seek out movement or input without considering their own safety
These children are more likely to seek out more sensory input. They may take risks on the playground or bump into other children or things. They may enjoy strong flavours and loud noises.
What can go along with sensory processing challenges?
Autism Spectrum Disorder
Not all children who have sensory processing differences have autism. But, the majority of children with autism* have differences in sensory processing.
Autistic children may seem to:
- Be unconcerned about pain or temperature
- Have a negative reaction to noise
- Smell or touch objects a lot
- Have an unusual interest in lights or movements such as a spinning toy
- Have picky eating habits or problems adding new foods
*Hyper or hypo reactivity to sensory input, or unusual interest in the sensory aspect of the environment, is a symptom of autism according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).
Other Coexisting Conditions
Children with sensory processing differences often have other conditions, such as:
- Developmental delay
- Certain mental health conditions, including anxiety, trauma or post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Neurodevelopmental conditions, including fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
When do sensory processing challenges become a problem?
These differences in sensory processing become a problem when they affect a child’s daily functioning. The child may be less able to take part in daily activities than most children. Many children have strong reactions to certain sensory experiences from time to time. If parents, caregivers and children have difficulty moving past these, more support may be helpful.
Support might be helpful for a child who:
- Refuses grooming tasks such as having their hair washed or nails trimmed
- Is picky about food and avoids certain food tastes or textures. All children have preferences, but it is a greater concern if:
- Eating skills are delayed
- All of one type of food, such as vegetables, is avoided
- Their weight decreases or stays the same
- Is not able to get dressed or takes so long that it is hard to keep to a regular schedule
- Has large outbursts or meltdowns linked to certain tasks or environments
- Refuses to go to places where it may be busy or loud
- Doesn’t respect personal space, bumps into peers, or interacts with others too roughly
- Has difficulty joining quiet group activities because they dislike being near other children or are too active
What can be done?
It helps to remember that each person has their own sensory preferences and ways they understand and respond to the world around them. Also, people may have conflicting preferences (for example, a parent may dislike loud noises, but their children may love to make loud noises). Sensory processing is not static, it can change. Children continue to develop as they get older. They may learn to recognize their own sensory needs and how to manage them. They often need support from caregivers and teachers to gain the skills to self-regulate and co-regulate.
Parents & caregivers have a key role in co-regulating with sensory processing. It is a big part of supporting children with sensory processing challenges. Think about how you are feeling at the moment - if you are stressed, frustrated, or scattered, your child may feel this way too. You can help your child learn what they need and when they need it, and have a consistent response when your child seems to be needing support.
For example, a parent or caregiver can:
- Suggest a child has a snack if they might be getting grumpy and can cue the child that they might be hungry
- Offer a pair of noise blocking headphones to a child distracted or bothered by noise
- Hug a child firmly to provide comfort and calming
Some practical ideas to support a child with sensory processing challenges:
- Try to be a sensory explorer for your child. Think about the daily activities that may affect your child. Look for ways to balance the need to decrease stress for your child with increasing their tolerance to sensory stimuli.
- Think about how you can adjust the environment to provide or limit sensory input. What sensory stimulation can be added or removed? For example, if your child gets easily overwhelmed, try lowering the lights or using headphones that block noise. For a child that is fidgety and needs more input, it may help to take breaks and move more, use weighted equipment (such as a weighted animal, carrying heavy books, using a weighted blanket or lap pad) or do some heavy work.
- Some children respond well to tools that help them regulate. For example, a water bottle may help a child who is sucking on their clothes. A small toy or “hand fidget” can keep a child’s hand busy as they listen to a lesson. Other ideas can be to go for a walk, bike ride, or indoor yoga session for a child who wants to move their body. Try out a hammock or rocking chair for a child who finds swaying movement calming. It’s important to allow for choice and variety in routine.
- Choose your battles. A child may prefer certain clothing that does not match their parent’s style but may still be okay for school. But, a child may need to learn to get used to certain clothing to take part in certain activities (for example, it may be challenging if a child wants to go ice skating but avoids wearing socks.).
- Gradually desensitize the child who has high sensitivity by exposing them in small ways. It might help to change:
- The timing - choose a time when your child is more relaxed
- The place - for example, try new foods at home on the weekend for one child, or with friends at school for another
- The amount - start small
It can help to distract your child when you first get started. Later the child may need to be weaned off the distraction. (For example: watching a favourite show while having hair brushed or nails trimmed).
Where to from here?
It is important to connect with a family doctor or primary health provider to rule out specific concerns. Ask about your child’s vision, hearing, allergies, gut issues and neurological conditions. Children with vision problems might be bumping into others because they cannot see very well and need glasses. A child who is not responding to parents calling their name could have hearing loss. A child who experiences reflux may avoid certain foods because they cause pain. Sometimes a physical concern can lead to more sensory processing challenges. It is important to make sure any medical concerns are taken care of first.
An occupational therapist can provide greater support for children and families having difficulty with sensory processing. They usually will do an assessment to find out where a child has difficulty and how this affects their participation. They can then offer suggestions and help to problem solve for how a child might engage more in their world. Some occupational therapists might use a space with specific equipment or tools to support a child with sensory processing.
You can find an occupational therapist in a number of ways in B.C.:
- Private therapists: Private occupational therapists may see a child in person or virtually. They may visit a child at home or see the child in a clinic. Payment may come through Autism funds, the At Home Program funds, extended benefits (health spending accounts) or private pay. The Variety club also provides funding for families with limited household incomes. You can find an occupational therapist from the Canadian Association of Occupational Therapists website. In addition, the Registered Autism Service Provider List is a comprehensive list of child and youth occupational therapist in BC (and is not just for children with Autism).
- MCFD Child & Youth Mental Health occupational therapists: In some communities, Child & Youth Mental Health teams have occupational therapists on them. A child must be referred by their Child & Youth Mental Health clinician.
- School occupational therapists: School occupational therapists have varying capacity to support a child’s sensory needs. Typically they focus their efforts on how a child’s sensory needs impact participation at school (not home or community).
- Early intervention programs (for children under age 6): Many early intervention programs have occupational therapists.
Looking for more information on this topic? Connect with a parent peer support worker at the Kelty Centre to discover additional resources, learn more about support and treatment options, or just to find a listening ear.