How to explain sensory processing issues to friends and family

ByMelissa A. Kay

At a glance

  • Friends and family may not understand your child’s sensory processing issues.

  • It may help to compare your child’s issues to something familiar, like touching a hot stove.

  • Using simple language is key to explaining what your child is experiencing.

Friends and family may want to be supportive. But that doesn’t mean they’ll automatically get what your child with sensory processing issues is going through. Or what you’re going through, for that matter. Here are some suggestions for how to help friends and family better understand .

Make the brain connection.

Kids with sensory processing issues aren’t trying to be difficult. The brains of people with sensory processing challenges have trouble filtering, organizing, and interpreting information taken in by the senses. This can cause extreme reactions to sensations like bright light, noises, smells, tastes, and textures.

Explain that your child’s behavior isn’t a choice. It’s a reaction to what your child’s brain is telling them. Also share whether your child is oversensitive or undersensitive, and which of the senses are involved.

Keep it simple.

There’s no need to go into great detail when describing sensory processing differences to friends and family. The most important thing for them to know is what your child is feeling when your child has extreme reactions.

Compare it to how most people feel when they touch a hot stove. To your child, an itchy sweater might feel just as intense and uncomfortable. The loud siren you find annoying might actually be painful for your child. Analogies like these make what may seem like abstract ideas easier to grasp.

Explain the range of reactions.

When describing what your child is going through, be sure to mention that every child is different. Just like some of us are always cold or want to turn down the TV, kids have different sensitivities and reactions.

Your child may have issues with noise while another child is sensitive to light. Some kids have extreme reactions to all types of sensory information.

Also explain that some kids with sensory processing issues underreact. They might keep their hand on a hot stove because they don’t register pain the way other kids do. For them, safety can be a big issue.

Discuss what helps.

Family and friends may wonder what can help your child cope. Or they may ask why your child gets to do things differently from other kids. Once they know that a certain adjustment makes life less stressful for your child, they can explain it to others.

For instance, your child’s cousins may think it’s unfair that your child doesn’t have to wear dress shoes to a fancy family dinner when they do. Their parents can explain why your child needs to do things differently.

Explain that your child’s behavior isn’t a choice. It’s a reaction to what your child’s brain is telling them.

One way to help kids understand is to compare your child’s needs to the needs of someone with a physical challenge. For example, if one kid breaks a leg, the whole class isn’t allowed to put their feet up on a chair. Fair doesn’t always mean equal. It means making sure people have what they need.

Sensory processing issues aren’t familiar to many people. So you may need to educate friends and family. The more they understand about your child’s issues, the more support they can offer you both. Knowing that people are accepting can be a huge boost to your child’s self-esteem.

Key takeaways

  • Once adults understand, they can explain your child’s issues to their own kids.

  • Explain how much it helps when people make adjustments for your child’s needs.

  • Explain that your child’s behaviors are due to signals from the brain and aren’t something your child does on purpose.

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About the author

About the author

Melissa A. Kay is a writer, editor, and content strategist in the areas of family, health, employment, beauty, lifestyle, and more.

Reviewed by

Reviewed by

Donna Volpitta, EdD is the founder of Pathways to Empower. Her work draws on the latest research in neuroscience, psychology, and education.