4 ways sensory challenges impact movement

Sensory processing challenges can involve more than just sight, smell, sound, touch, and taste. Kids can also struggle with senses that affect movement. Learn how sensory challenges can impact things like balance and force.

By Kate Kelly

Expert reviewed by Keri Wilmot

Updated November 21, 2023

Child on a swing at a playground.

At a glance

  • There are more than just five senses.

  • Some of the lesser-known senses affect movement.

  • Kids with sensory processing challenges can struggle with those senses.

Kids with sensory processing challenges struggle with information that comes in through the senses. These include the five senses we typically think of: sight, smell, sound, taste, and touch. But they also include three other senses. And kids can have trouble with them, too.

One of these senses, called proprioception, controls body awareness. It lets you know where parts of your body are and what they’re doing. For example, try raising your hand as if you’re going to answer a question. You know your hand is above your head, not straight in front of you, even though you can’t see it.

Another sense controls balance and spatial awareness. This is called the vestibular sense. It lets you know where your whole body is in space and helps keep you stable and upright. When kids don’t process that information, it can make them feel off-balance and out of control.

There’s also a sense called interoception that lets you understand and feel what’s going on in your body. Kids who struggle with this sense have trouble knowing when they feel hungry, full, hot, cold, or thirsty. Or that it’s time to head to the bathroom.

Learn about four common ways sensory challenges can affect movement in kids.

1. They may seem awkward and clumsy.

Activities like running or even going up and down stairs may be hard for kids who don’t have a strong awareness of their movements. They may move slowly or avoid activities that are too challenging.

2. They may not know their own strength.

Imagine you’re at the fridge, getting out a carton of juice you think is full — but it’s actually empty. You may jerk the carton up or even drop it because you used more muscles than you needed.

Sensory-related difficulties can make it tough to know the right amount of force to use for all kinds of tasks. Kids may break the pencil point because they’re writing too hard. Or they might rip a page when they just meant to turn it. Or give hugs that are too tight.

3. They may not like physical activities that other kids find fun.

For example, they may not feel safe on the swings because they’re not getting the sensory input that tells them they’re securely seated. As the swing moves, it makes them feel scared.

4. They may be in constant motion, bump into things, or seem out of control.

Some kids don’t get enough feedback from the sensory system. They can crave more activity and sometimes do things that aren’t safe.

When they walk down a hallway, they may knock into the wall to feel more anchored. They may kick their legs under their desk for the same reason. In the classroom, they might run instead of walk and bump into classmates a lot.

Sensory challenges can affect movement in other ways, too. If kids are uncomfortable touching things, they may be reluctant to play with and manipulate objects. This can slow down the development of fine motor skills and gross motor skills.

There are lots of ways to help with sensory challenges. Learn about occupational therapy. Explore strategies you can try at home.  And get tips to manage sensory meltdowns

Key takeaways

  • One of our senses controls balance and spatial awareness.

  • Kids with sensory challenges may not know their own strength.

  • Kids may bump into things because they crave more activity.

Share

Explore related topics