There’s greater awareness of sensory processing challenges than ever before. But there’s also a lot of confusion. Kids who struggle with things like bright lights, loud noises, and strong smells are often misunderstood. Here are eight common myths about sensory processing challenges, and the facts that debunk them.
Myth #1: There’s no such thing as sensory processing challenges.
Fact: It’s true that there’s no formal diagnosis of “sensory processing challenges.” And there’s debate over the terms sensory processing disorder and sensory integration disorder. But that doesn’t mean these struggles aren’t real. Doctors and other specialists know that some people have a hard time managing sensory input. Occupational therapists even create treatment plans for sensory challenges.
Myth #2: Kids with sensory processing challenges are sensitive to everything.
Fact: There are two types of sensory processing challenges. Many kids experience a mix of the two.
Some kids are oversensitive (or hypersensitive) to information that comes in through their senses. They may be overwhelmed by certain noises or sensations.
But kids can also be undersensitive (or hyposensitive). This causes kids to be sensory-seeking. They look for more sensory stimulation. These kids may show little or no reaction to heat, cold, pain, and other sensations.
Kids might be oversensitive in some areas and undersensitive in others. This can make it hard for parents to understand their child’s challenges.
Myth #3: Kids with sensory processing challenges are overreacting.
Fact: Kids with sensory processing challenges may seem fussy. It may look like they get upset for no reason. But they’re reacting to things that may not be as noticeable to others.
Some kids may get agitated in a restaurant because of a specific smell. Or at the mall because of a type of sound. They might refuse to wear certain clothing or brush their hair because it feels painful. For these kids, trying to manage certain sensations can lead to a sensory meltdown or shutting down.
Myth #4: Sensory processing challenges 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 sensory challenges in these areas may struggle with motor skills.
There’s an eighth and lesser-known sense, too. It’s called interoception. It helps you understand and feel what’s going on inside your body. Kids who struggle with this 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 challenges just need to “toughen up.”
Fact: These kids have brains that work differently. Telling a child to “toughen up” isn’t going to change that. Kids with sensory processing challenges may need a little extra support or accommodations to help them manage a world that can feel very overwhelming.
Myth #6: Kids with sensory processing challenges lack self-control.
Fact: Sensory processing challenges can make it harder for kids to respond the same way other kids do. That may look like a lack of self-control. But it’s an in-the-moment response, not a lack of self-control.
For instance, a child who is sensitive to noise may try to run away if someone turns on a hair dryer. It’s the same kind of instant reaction you might have when you yank 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 challenges are a form of autism spectrum disorder.
Fact: Sensory challenges are sometimes a symptom of autism. But people can have trouble with sensory processing without having . There are overlapping symptoms between autism and learning and thinking differences. Some kids have both.
Read about one mom’s struggle to figure out if her son’s sensory challenges are related to his ADHD, to his autism, or to both.
Myth #8: “Sensory processing challenges” is just another name for ADHD.
Fact: and sensory processing challenges have some things in common. Fidgeting, struggling with personal space, and sensory overload are common for both.
But there are key differences between ADHD and sensory issues. Not all kids with ADHD have sensory challenges. And not all kids with sensory challenges have ADHD.
The more you know about these challenges, the more you can help other people understand them, too.
- Get tips for talking to your child’s teacher about sensory processing challenges.
- Read what one dad wants people to know about parenting a child with sensory processing challenges.
About the author
About the author
Amanda Morin is the author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education” and the former director of thought leadership at Understood. As an expert and writer, she helped build Understood from its earliest days.
Keri Wilmot has worked with children, teens, and young adults for more than 20 years in a wide range of pediatric settings. Her teenage son has been diagnosed with ADHD.