Sensory processing issues are difficulties with organizing and responding to information that comes in through the senses. Kids may be oversensitive to sensory input, undersensitive, or both.
What are sensory processing issues? The term refers to trouble managing information that comes in through the senses. These issues, sometimes called sensory processing disorder or sensory integration disorder, can have a big impact on learning and on everyday life.
This guide can answer basic questions about sensory processing issues. You’ll also find expert advice, strategies to use at home, and information on the best supports for your child at school.
Snapshot: What Sensory Processing Issues Are
In some people, the brain has trouble organizing and responding to information from the senses. Certain sounds, sights, smells, textures, and tastes can create a feeling of “sensory overload.” Bright or flickering lights, loud noises, certain textures of food, and scratchy clothing are just some of the triggers that can make kids feel overwhelmed and upset.
There are two types of sensory processing challenges, and many kids experience a mix of the two. One is oversensitivity (hypersensitivity). This leads to sensory avoiding—kids avoid sensory input because it’s too overwhelming. The other is undersensitivity (hyposensitivity). This causes kids to be sensory seeking—they look for more sensory stimulation.
Often, kids with sensory processing issues are oversensitive. They try to avoid sensations they find intolerable.
But some kids seek more sensory input, not less. They may want to touch things and feel physical contact and pressure. They may also be undersensitive to pain and have an unusually high tolerance for it. That’s why they may prefer playing rough and not understand if they’re hurting someone.
Some kids may be both sensory avoiding and sensory seeking. They may be oversensitive to some sensations, and undersensitive to others. A child’s reactions can also change from one day to the next, or even throughout the day, depending on the environment or situation.
Sensory processing issues aren’t a specific learning disability. But they can still have a large impact on learning.
Read an expert’s explanation of “sensory overload.”
Get answers to common questions about sensory processing issues.
Sensory Processing Issues Signs and Symptoms
What you or your child’s teacher might see depends on two things. The first is the trigger—the sensory input that’s overwhelming your child. The second is the type of sensory processing challenge your child has.
Kids who are sensory avoiding may react to a wide range of triggers. These can include loud sounds, uncomfortable clothing, crowded spaces, or certain food smells or textures, among others. Whatever the trigger, the reaction can sometimes be extreme.
Sensory overload can lead to sensory meltdowns. These are very different from tantrums because they’re out of the child’s control.
Here are some other 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 or environment and avoids trying new things
Sensory information isn’t limited to the traditional five senses: sight, smell, taste, touch, and sound. Interoception is a lesser-known sense that helps you understand and feel what’s going on in your body. Kids who have trouble with it may have a harder time with toilet training or have an unexpected threshold for pain.
Two other senses, body awareness (proprioception) and spatial orientation (the vestibular sense), can also affect kids with sensory issues. Sensory avoiding kids may have trouble knowing where their body is in relation to other kids or their environment. Or they may be wary about using playground equipment like the swings.
Kids who are undersensitive to sensory input have the opposite situation. They often have a need for movement. And they may seek out input like spicy or sour tastes and physical contact and pressure.
Here are some other signs you might see in your child at different ages:
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
Keep in mind that kids aren’t always one or the other. Some kids may be sensory seeking in certain situations and sensory avoiding in others, depending on how that child is coping or self-regulating at the time. That’s why it’s so important to observe your child’s reactions and to try to anticipate what triggers them.
What Can Co-Occur With Sensory Processing Issues
Sensory processing issues aren’t a diagnosis on their own. But they often co-occur with two conditions: ADHD and autism. Kids don’t have to have ADHD or autism to have sensory processing issues, however.
Some of the signs of ADHD may look similar to the signs of sensory processing issues. Kids with either of these conditions might need to be in constant motion, for instance. But the reasons would be different.
Like kids with ADHD, kids with sensory processing issues may also experience anxiety. Learn why kids with sensory issues can often feel anxious.
See a chart that compares sensory processing issues and ADHD.
Read more about the connection between autism and sensory processing issues.
Possible Causes of Sensory Processing Issues
Researchers are looking into biological reasons for these issues. Some research suggests they can be genetic. Researchers are also looking into birth complications and other environmental factors. But so far, there’s no known cause of sensory processing issues.
ADHD and autism often co-occur with sensory issues. They don’t cause them, however.
Hear from a mom on how her son’s sensory issues helped her better understand herself.
Get tips on explaining sensory issues to friends and family.
How Sensory Processing Issues Are Diagnosed
Sensory processing issues aren’t a formal diagnosis, although they used to be diagnosed as “sensory processing disorder.” You might hear a professional evaluator say something like, “Your child has trouble processing sensory information.”
There are a few tests professionals can use to identify sensory processing issues. These include Sensory Integration and Praxis Tests (SIPT) and the Sensory Processing Measure (SPM) checklist.
In general, though, the behaviors kids with sensory processing issues show are very visible and evident. It’s important to observe your child and take notes to share with professionals who might identify your child’s challenges.
Occupational therapists (OTs) are often qualified to identify and create treatment plans for sensory challenges in kids. Other professionals may be able to identify sensory processing issues, too. These include:
Tracking your child’s behavior and reaction can help you identify patterns and triggers. But it can be hard to know where to start. Download an anxiety log to help identify why and when your child gets anxious or stressed.
See an expert explain what goes into an occupational therapy evaluation.
Find out what a dad wishes others knew about parenting a child with sensory processing issues.
Read how a couple got back their “parenting power” after years of mismanaging meltdowns.
How Professionals Can Help With Sensory Processing Issues
There are no medications for sensory processing issues. But there are professionals who can help your child learn strategies to cope with sensory challenges.
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:
Rolling on a therapy ball
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. Read how heavy work can help kids with sensory processing issues.
Child psychologists also work with kids who have sensory processing issues. They can use cognitive behavioral therapy to help kids talk through their feelings and frustrations caused by their challenges.
At school, your child might be able to get accommodations through a 504 plan. (If your child has an IEP for another issue, it could include accommodations for sensory issues, too.) The teacher may also give your child informal supports.
Classroom accommodations to help kids with sensory processing issues might include:
Allowing your child to use a fidget
Providing a quiet space 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 take exercise breaks to self-regulate
See more accommodations for sensory processing issues. Find out how to request a 504 plan for your child. And get tips for talking with your child’s teacher about sensory issues.
How You Can Help Your Child With Sensory Processing Issues
Dealing with the unexpected behaviors that come with sensory issues 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:
Explore sensory-friendly indoor activities.
Find out what to do if your child refuses to wear winter clothing.
Download a six-week holiday planner for kids with sensory issues.
Learn ways to help your grade-schooler deal with school challenges.
Get tips on how to be an advocate for your child at school.
And be sure to visit Parenting Coach, where you’ll find hundreds of age-specific, practical tips to work through social, emotional, and behavioral challenges.
It’s important to find support for you, too:
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