In order to help your child overcome or manage their sensory needs, it’s critical to understand if your child is over or under processing sensations. Come find out 3 ways to figure out what your child’s sensory needs are!
The last few weeks we’ve talked about how kids that get labeled as bad, weird, or hyper could be very misunderstood. Because underneath it all, they’re unique sensory processing may be the culprit for all their confusing and frustrating behaviors.
Then you learned about, what in my opinion, is the most essential and powerful tool for kids with sensory needs big and small: the sensory diet.
But, to use a sensory diet simply and have it flow as part of your life, you have to know what your kid’s sensory needs are.
One of the components to understanding your child’s sensory needs that you need to learn is how to identify if your child is over processing or under processing sensory input.
What is Over and Under Processing?
Usually, I avoid using the terms: over-processing and under-processing. There’s a lot of sensory jargon, and when occupational therapist’s start throwing it around, it’s hard for parents to follow. But, in order for you to help your child overcome and mange their sensory needs, this is a critical concept to understand.
Over-processing happens when the brain keeps sending signals about a particular sensation instead of adapting to or ignoring it. For example, if a child is losing their mind over a tag in their shirt, they are over processing that sensation.
Their brain won’t start telling them the tag is touching the back of their neck. That signal keeps firing. Over and over and over again. The result, a child becomes upset, seems overly particular, and may even have a meltdown.
Under-processing occurs when the brain doesn’t seem to register the sensation. In this case, you could see your child repeatedly spin without getting dizzy. It’s as if they could spin forever.
Children that are developing and growing naturally seek out sensations from all the senses, they’re designed to. But, when their brain doesn’t register the sensation or barely registers it, they’ll keep trying to get the input. Over and over and over again. The result of under processing is often a child that doesn’t seem to listen or follow directions.
They may be described as wild, hyper, or even bad all because their brain isn’t registering sensations from their environment.
Where Do These Sensory Issues Come From?
Over or under-processing gives us a glimpse of how a child’s sensory processing is working. While it can be tempting to label this as good or bad, try to avoid that because kids can’t help how their brain is processing sensations. Each child’s sensory processing is as unique to them as their fingerprint.
However, it’s common to see genetic similarities, although that’s not always the case. There’s lots of speculation and theories as to why so many kids have sensory “issues” or needs these days.
In part, a greater awareness and recognition of challenges explains the increase. But, it’s also possible that environmental toxins are playing a role, and since our sensory system is one of the last brain functions to develop in utero, many children born prematurely (even just a few weeks early) often have sensory processing difficulties.
Why Does Over and Under Processing Matter for Your Child?
Over-processing and under-processing sensory input matter because it’s the first way we can start to look at a child’s behavior and link it to a specific sensory need. Once we know what that specific sensory need is, then you can begin to address it!
Remember that we have 7 different senses:
- Vestibular (sense of movement)
- Proprioceptive (sense of body awareness
Most sensory needs are related to one or more of the senses. And, for each of the senses, with the exception of proprioception, your child can over or under-process sensations.
Signs Your Child is Over-Processing Sensations
Over-processing sensory input can also be described as hyper-sensitive or avoiding. Basically, if your child is over-processing, they’re going to appear sensitive and avoid those types of sensations. These are just some of the most common signs that a sense is being over processed, but there are many more:
- Shields eyes in sun
- Gets upset in stores or spaces with bright lights
- Doesn’t like music
- Gets upset or melts down when they hear a loud or sudden noise
- Dislikes or avoids public bathrooms with hand blow dryers and loud flushing toilets
- Complains about the smell of food
- Comments about smells in the environment all the time
- Only eats certain types of textures
- Prefers bland, sour, or spicy flavors
- Often labeled a picky eater
- Won’t walk across grass barefoot
- Hates messy play like finger painting
- Doesn’t like to be messy
- Afraid of swings
- Cries and seems fearful when adults rough house with them
- Doesn’t like head being tipped back to wash hair
Remember that it’s very rare to see a sensitivity or over-processing with proprioceptive input.
When a child under-processes sensations, we’ll see the opposite behaviors. But, kids can and often do a have mix of both under and over-processing over all the senses. For instance, a child may hate to get messy (over-processing touch) and be a bull in a china shop (under-processing proprioception).
Let’s take a look at a few common examples of under-processing across the senses:
- Loves staring at bright lights
- Will watch an object spin for a long period of time, like a ceiling fan
- Strong preference for fast brightly colored TV shows
- Always making sounds and noise
- Loves having music on
- Smells everything in their environment, even other people
- Loves big, bold flavors of food
- Adventurous eater
- Craves crunchy and unique food textures
- Likes to hang upside down
- Runs often
- Climbs anything in sight
- Jumps and crashes into things in their environment
Head over to Sensory Red Flags to learn more signs for both under and over-processing.
3 Ways to Figure Out if Your Child is Over-Processing or Under-Processing
Now that you know why under and over-processing is important and some common signs that your child may be having difficulty with over or under-processing, I want to teach you three ways to identify it in your child:
It may sound basic, but simply taking a moment to observe your child through a different lens, not the usual exhausted why-won’t-he-stop-jumping-on-the-couch lens, is often very eye opening. And listen, I’m not pointing fingers. I’m guilty of missing signs in my own son. They were subtle and I was busy managing multiple young kids. Once I shifted my focus, suddenly all sorts of signs he was under-processing jumped out at me.
I couldn’t believe that as an OT, that loves sensory, I had missed them. My point is that it’s easy to miss.
Think about making a conscious effort to simply observe your child. As you do, ask yourself if you’re seeing any signs that you read above or that you need to do some more research on.
If you aren’t sure what your child’s sensory needs are, put specific opportunities in front of them.
Set up finger painting or paper mache.
Go to the park and ride some swings, go down slides, and climb the monkey bars.
Watch for their response. If they pull away, that’s pointing to over-processing. If they love it and seem to be more grounded afterwards, it’s a sign that they’re under-processing.
#3: Ask Them!
It’s so obvious, but we often don’t think to ask kids what types of sensations they like and which they don’t. Yet, kids as young as 2 can start to voice this if we give them a chance.
I like to find a quiet time to talk to them, when they’re most likely to be receptive to me asking questions like, “Why don’t you want to ride the swing at the park?” Or, “How does your body feel when you’re running around? Is it difficult to stop?” These are great conversation starters to have with your child. Try to listen to your child and let them do as much talking as possible.
Their answers can give you tremendous insight into how their brain is over or under processing sensory input.
It’s also helpful at times to ask them in the moment why a particular activity or situation is hard for them. However, if they’ve already reached a point of dysregulation, they may not be able to answer you.
Take the Free Workshop…
There’s no sugar coating the fact that sensory processing is complex. Parents often feel really overwhelmed, which is why I share as much as possible here on Your Kid’s Table, but it can still be difficult to put all the pieces together. That’s why I created the free workshop 3 Expert Secrets to Calm and Focus Your Child with Specialized Sensory Activities. In the workshop, I’ll uncover these secrets that can make like feel easier and less frustrating, as your child is finally able to calm down, focus, and much more.
Alisha Grogan is a licensed occupational therapist and founder of Your Kid’s Table. She has over 15 years experience with expertise in sensory processing and feeding development in babies, toddlers, and children. Alisha also has 3 boys of her own at home. Learn more about her here.