How to explain sensory processing challenges to friends and family

Get tips for talking to friends and family members about your child’s sensory processing challenges.

By Melissa A. Kay

Expert reviewed by Donna Volpitta, EdD

Friends and family may want to be supportive. But that doesn’t mean they’ll automatically understand what it means when you say your child has sensory processing challenges. Here are four ways to help friends and family understand better.

1. Talk about the brain connection.

Kids who have trouble with sensory processing aren’t trying to be difficult. Their brains just have a hard time filtering, organizing, and interpreting information taken in by the senses. This can cause extreme reactions to light, noises, smells, tastes, and textures.

Explain that your child’s behavior is a response to their brain signals. Mention if your child is over- or undersensitive, and specify the senses involved.

2. Make a simple comparison.

You don’t have to go into great detail when describing sensory processing challenges to friends and family. But do help them understand what your child is feeling when they have an extreme reaction.

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. Or the loud siren that annoys you might really hurt your child’s ears. Giving concrete examples can help family and friends better understand.

3. Explain the range of reactions.

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

Your child may be sensitive to noise while another child may be sensitive to light. And some kids have extreme reactions to all types of sensory information.

Also, explain that some kids with trouble processing sensory information 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.

4. Discuss ways you help your child cope.

You’ve explained how your child’s brain works and the specific reactions they have. Next, have a conversation about your child’s needs and what helps them cope. Building support and acceptance can be a boost to your child’s self-esteem.

Talk about how certain ways of doing things reduce your child’s stress and anxiety. Once adults understand, they can explain your child’s challenges to their own kids. For instance, if your child is sensitive to fabrics, you may let them wear a comfortable T-shirt to a family dinner instead of dressing up. If their young cousins say “That’s not fair,” their parents can explain why your child needs to do things differently.

For kids who still don’t understand, try comparing your child’s needs to a physical challenge. Discuss how if one student breaks a leg, the teacher wouldn’t allow the whole class to put their feet up. They are making an exception so that one student won’t be in pain. Explain that “fair” isn’t always equal. It means that each person has what they need.

Looking for more resources? Learn how to debunk eight common myths about sensory processing challenges.

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