At a glance
There’s greater awareness of sensory processing issues than ever before, but also a lot of confusion. Kids who struggle with processing sensory information—like sight, sound, and smell—are often misunderstood. Here are eight common myths about sensory processing issues, and the facts that debunk them.
Myth #1: There’s no such thing as sensory processing issues.
Fact: Doctors and other specialists can see the challenges these issues cause. It’s true there’s no formal diagnosis of “sensory processing issues.” And there’s debate over the terms sensory processing disorder and sensory integration disorder. But that doesn’t mean these struggles aren’t real. In fact, occupational therapists often create specific treatment plans for sensory challenges.
Myth #2: Kids with sensory processing issues are sensitive to everything.
Fact: There are two types of sensory processing issues, and many kids experience a mix of the two. Some kids are oversensitive (hypersensitive) to the information that comes in through their senses. This can lead to them avoiding certain noises or sensations because they’re too overwhelming.
But kids can also be undersensitive (hyposensitive). This causes kids to be sensory-seeking—they look for more sensory stimulation. These are kids who may show little or no reaction to heat, cold, pain, and other sensations. That can be scary for parents.
Myth #3: Kids with sensory processing issues are overreacting.
Fact: Kids with sensory processing issues may seem fussy. It may appear that they get upset for no reason. But the truth is they’re reacting to things that may not be as noticeable to others.
Some kids may get agitated and overwhelmed in a restaurant because of a specific smell. Or at the mall because of a type of sound. Or they might refuse to wear certain clothing or brush their hair because it feels painful. For these kids, having too much sensory information to process can lead to a sensory meltdown or shutting down.
Myth #4: Sensory processing issues only impact five senses.
Fact: We often only think about five senses—sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch. But there are other senses, too. The sixth and seventh senses control body awareness (proprioception) and balance and spatial orientation (the vestibular sense). Kids with these two sensory challenges may struggle with motor skills.
There’s an eighth and lesser-known sense, too. It’s called interoception, and it helps you understand and feel what’s going on inside your body. Kids who struggle with interoception may have trouble interpreting things like pain or the physical signs of emotion (like their heart racing in fear).
Myth #5: Kids with sensory processing issues just need to “toughen up.”
Myth #6: Kids with sensory processing issues lack self-control.
Fact: Sensory processing issues can make it harder for kids to respond appropriately to sensory input. That may look like a lack of self-control. However, it’s an in-the-moment response, not a lack of self-control. For instance, oversensitive kids may try to get away from a certain stimulation because it can trigger a meltdown, much like you might pull your hand away from an open flame.
They may bump into people because of motor skills challenges. Or they may crash into things or fidget with objects when they seek out sensations.
Myth #7: Sensory processing issues are a form of autism spectrum disorder.
Fact: Having sensory processing issues isn’t the same thing as having autism spectrum disorder. But sensory challenges are often a key symptom of autism. There are overlapping symptoms between autism and learning and thinking differences, and some kids have both. Read about one mom’s struggle to figure out if her son’s sensory issues are related to his ADHD, to his autism, or to both.
Myth #8: “Sensory processing issues” is just another name for ADHD.
Fact: and sensory processing issues have some things in common, like fidgeting, struggling with personal space, and even experiencing sensory overload. And tools like weighted blankets and fidgets can benefit kids with both. But even though they have some overlap and can co-occur, there are key differences between ADHD and sensory issues. Not all kids with ADHD have sensory issues, just like not all kids with sensory issues have ADHD.
By understanding more about sensory processing issues, you can help dispel myths others have. Get tips for talking to your child’s teacher about sensory processing issues. And read what one dad wants people to know about parenting a child with sensory processing issues.
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About the author
About the author
Amanda Morin is the director of thought leadership at Understood and author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education.” She worked as a classroom teacher and early intervention specialist for more than a decade.
Keri Wilmot is an occupational therapist who works with children of varying ages and abilities in all areas of pediatrics.