Understanding sensory processing challenges in your child

By Gail Belsky

Expert reviewed by Keri Wilmot

Updated December 4, 2023

If your child has strong reactions to tastes, sounds, or the feel of certain items, you may wonder why this happens. For instance, why are new shoes so unbearable that your child yells and pulls them off? What makes the supermarket so overwhelming that even a quick trip leads to a meltdown?

When kids have outbursts or get upset by things in the environment, it’s often because of sensory processing challenges. Their brains have trouble managing the information that comes in from the senses. That includes the five main senses: taste, smell, sound, touch, and sight. It also includes three senses that impact body and space awareness and movement.

What are sensory processing challenges?

There are two types of sensory challenges, and many kids have both. The most common type is oversensitivity. Kids get overwhelmed by the information that comes in through their senses. (This is called sensory overload.) And they try to avoid sensations that they can’t tolerate. 

Common triggers include:

  • Scratchy clothing
  • Certain textures of food
  • Loud noises
  • Bright or flickering lights

The other type of sensory challenge is undersensitivity. With this type, kids don’t get enough input from the environment. So, they seek more sensory stimulation.

Kids with these challenges don’t always have the same reaction to input. They may be oversensitive to some sensations and undersensitive to others. Their reactions can also change based on where they are and what’s going on around them.

Sensory processing challenges aren’t a diagnosis on their own. But they often co-occur with two conditions: ADHD and autism. Sensory challenges may also co-occur with anxiety.

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Signs of sensory processing challenges

The signs you might see depend on two things. The first is the trigger — the sensory input that’s overwhelming your child. The second is the type of sensory challenge your child has.

Sensory avoiding

Kids who are sensory avoiding may have extreme reactions to a wide range of triggers. The overload they feel can lead to sensory meltdowns. Here are some signs you might see in your child:

  • Is easily overwhelmed by people and places
  • Seeks out quiet spots in noisy, crowded environments
  • Is easily startled by sudden noises
  • Is bothered by bright light
  • Refuses to wear itchy or otherwise uncomfortable clothing
  • Avoids touching people or hugging them
  • Has a strong reaction to the texture or smell of certain foods
  • Refuses to try new foods and has a very limited diet of preferred foods
  • Gets upset about small changes in routine and transitioning from one activity or environment to another
  • Avoids trying new things

Sensory seeking

Kids who are sensory seeking often have a need for movement. They may seek out input like spicy or sour tastes and physical contact and pressure. Here are other signs you might see:

  • Constantly touches objects
  • Plays roughly and takes physical risks
  • Has a high tolerance for pain
  • Often squirms and fidgets
  • Is constantly on the move
  • Invades other people’s personal space
  • Often gets distracted or feels anxious
  • Is clumsy and uncoordinated

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Trouble with other senses

Sensory information isn’t limited to the traditional five senses. There are three other senses that kids can also struggle with. 

The first is called interoception. This sense helps us understand and feel what’s going on in our bodies. Kids who have trouble with this sense may have a harder time with toilet training or have an unexpected threshold for pain.

The second of these senses is body awareness (proprioception). And the third is spatial awareness (the vestibular sense). Trouble with these senses can sometimes affect movement

Finding out if your child has sensory processing challenges

There are a few tests that can help identify sensory processing challenges. They include checklists like the Sensory Profile or the Sensory Processing Measure (SPM). Some therapists are also trained in the Evaluation in Ayres Sensory Integration (EASI).

But the behaviors that come with these challenges are very visible and clear without testing. It’s important to observe your child and take notes to share with professionals. They can more accurately tell you what’s behind the behaviors.

The professionals who often identify sensory challenges are occupational therapists (OTs). They also work with kids who have them. Other professionals who may identify challenges:

  • Pediatricians
  • Developmental-behavioral pediatricians
  • Psychologists, including neuropsychologists
  • School evaluators
  • Physical therapists and speech therapists

Supports and treatment for sensory processing challenges

There are no medications for sensory processing challenges. But OTs help kids find ways to be less overwhelmed by sensory input.

For instance, they might create what’s called a sensory diet. This is a tailored plan of physical activities. It helps kids learn to calm themselves and regulate their behavior and emotions. And that makes them more open to learning and socializing.

Here are some things that might be included in a sensory diet:

  • Jumping jacks
  • Rolling a therapy ball on a child’s back while the child is lying down
  • Push-ups
  • Hopping up and down
  • Climbing ladders and going down slides

Some of these activities are heavy work, a type of activity that pushes or pulls against the body and can be calming for many kids.

Kids with sensory challenges may also be able to get help at school. They might be able to get OT services or through a . (If your child has an for another reason, it could include accommodations for sensory challenges, too.) 

Classroom accommodations or supports to help kids with sensory processing issues might include:

  • Allowing your child to take exercise breaks to self-regulate
  • Providing a quiet space to work or earplugs for noise sensitivity
  • Telling your child ahead of time about a change in routine
  • Seating your child away from doors, windows, or buzzing lights
  • Allowing your child to use a fidget

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Ways to help your child manage the challenges

Dealing with the unexpected behaviors that come with sensory challenges can be hard on the whole family. But once you know what’s causing them, it gets easier to know how to help. There are lots of strategies you can use at home and on the go:

It’s important to find support for yourself, too. Join our Wunder community to connect and share strategies with other parents. 

Key takeaways

  • Kids with sensory processing challenges can be oversensitive, undersensitive, or both.

  • Occupational therapists can help kids learn to manage their sensory challenges.

  • Understanding your child’s reactions and triggers is key to helping your child cope.

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