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What are sensory processing issues?

Children with sensory processing issues have trouble handling information from their senses, like sight and sound. They feel too much or too little stimulation. This can make it hard for them to feel comfortable and control their behavior. For example, they might run out of a room that feels too loud or bright. It can also cause problems with learning and interacting with other kids.

Some kids with sensory processing issues struggle with information from their five basic senses: sound, touch, taste, sight and smell. Some have trouble with proprioception, which has to do with where their bodies are in relation to other people and things. Others struggle with their vestibular sense, which has to do with motion, balance, and using the right body part at the right time.

Children with autism often have sensory processing issues. Some kids with ADHD or OCD do too. Sensory processing issues can also happen in kids with no other diagnosis.

What are the symptoms of sensory processing issues?

There are two types of sensory processing issues:

  • Some kids are hypersensitive (oversensitive). To them, things feel louder, brighter, etc. than they do for other people. They can get overwhelmed easily.
  • Some kids are hyposensitive (under-sensitive). Normal stimulation doesn’t feel like much to them. They look for strong sensory experiences, like tight hugs and moving fast.

Some kids are hypersensitive and hyposensitive at the same time for different senses. Others are just hypersensitive or just hyposensitive.

Hypersensitive children may struggle with:

  • Bright lights and loud noises
  • Clothing feeling scratchy or uncomfortable
  • Shoes feeling too tight
  • Background noises that others don’t notice
  • Being touched, even by people they know and like
  • Fear of swings and other playground toys
  • Bumping into things and seeming clumsy
  • Not knowing how much force they’re using, so they might rip the paper when trying to erase or slam down objects accidentally

Hyposensitive kids may:

  • Always want to touch people or textures
  • Get too close to people, even when other kids their age understand personal space
  • Not be upset by injuries that are painful for other kids
  • Not know their own strength
  • Have trouble sitting still
  • Love jumping and crashing into things
  • Love deep pressure, like tight hugs
  • Love intense movement like going fast, spinning in circles or being tossed in the air

How are sensory processing issues diagnosed?

Sensory processing issues are not an official mental health disorder. However, getting treatment can still be helpful. To find out whether a child has sensory processing issues, a professional can give the child sensory tests. Observations from parents and other adults in the child’s life are also an important part of diagnosis.

How are sensory processing issues treated?

Sensory processing issues are often treated with occupational therapy. Occupational therapists (OTs) use a treatment called sensory integration therapy. OTs work with kids in a special gym where they can move around a lot and get the sensory stimulation they need.

There is no scientific proof yet that this therapy works. However, many parents say that it helps their kids feel better and control their behavior.

Parents and teachers can also help kids with sensory processing issues. Some ideas include:

  • Helping them avoid bright lights or loud noises
  • Using textures and weights that make the child feel comfortable
  • Giving them time to move (like jumping, stomping, or bouncing on a ball)