Some kids seem to have trouble handling the information the five senses—sound, touch, taste, sight, and smell—take in. Besides these common senses, there are also two other less well-known ones that can be affected—proprioception, or a sense of body awareness, and vestibular sense, which involves movement, balance, and coordination.
Kids with sensory processing issues experience too much or too little stimulation through these senses. They may also have difficulty integrating the information they’re taking in. It can be very hard for them to feel comfortable, function effectively, and be open to learning and socialization.
Many children with autism also have sensory issues, as do some kids with ADHD and OCD. They also occur in kids with no other diagnosis.
Sensory processing problems tend to come in two types, under- and over-sensitivity, although one child can experience both kinds.
Hypersensitive kids are extremely reactive to sensory stimulation and can find it overwhelming. They may:
- Be unable to tolerate bright lights and loud noises like ambulance sirens
- Refuse to wear clothing because it feels scratchy or
irritating—even after cutting out all the tags and labels—or shoes
because they feel “too tight”
- Be distracted by background noises that others don’t seem to hear
- Be fearful of surprise touch, avoid hugs and cuddling even with familiar adults
- Be overly fearful of swings and playground equipment
- Often have trouble understanding where their body is in relation to
other objects or people, causing them to bump into things and appear
- Have trouble sensing the amount of force they’re applying; for
example, they may rip the paper when erasing, pinch too hard or slam
Hyposensitive kids are under-sensitive, which makes them want to seek out more sensory stimulation. They may:
- Have a constant need to touch people or textures, even when it’s not socially acceptable
- Not understand personal space even when kids the same age are old enough to understand it
- Have an extremely high tolerance for pain
- Not understand their own strength
- Be very fidgety and unable to sit still
- Love jumping, bumping and crashing activities
- Enjoy deep pressure like tight bear hugs
- Crave fast, spinning and/or intense movement
- Love being tossed in the air and jumping on furniture and trampolines.
Occupational therapists (or OTs) are the specialists who work with kids who have sensory issues. They use something called sensory integration therapy in special gyms; the idea is that through physical contact and movements like spinning, crashing and jumping, the child can experience an optimal level of arousal and regulation.
There are no scientifically sound studies proving that the work OTs do with kids is effective; in fact, sensory processing issues are not an official disorder. But many parents have found that the therapies and exercises help kids to feel and function better.
There are other things parents and teachers can do to help kids function better at home and at school, such as avoiding bright lights and loud noises, using textures and weights to help kids feel comfortable, and giving them opportunities to get exercise like jumping, stomping, and bouncing on a ball.