Sensory processing is a critical part of every child’s development, but some kids have sensory processing issues that can impact every area of their life. Find out exactly what sensory processing is and when to be concerned about sensory issues.
Have you been hearing the term sensory processing and wondering what it is? Most people have no idea what sensory processing is, but it’s something that every human being relies on every single hour of the day. And, when it isn’t working efficiently it can cause all sorts of challenges and disturbances in a child or adult’s life.
As an occupational therapist, sensory processing is my specialty.
So let’s dive into everything you need to know about sensory processing…
What is Sensory Processing?
We must begin with, what does sensory processing mean? Sensory processing is a function or process of the brain that receives, sorts, and decides how and if to respond to a multitude of sensations from the 8 senses:
- Sound (auditory)
- Proprioception (body awareness)
- Interoception (internal sensations)
- Vestibular (movement)
Also referred to as Sensory Integration, this process allows children and adults to behave in expected and meaningful ways in their various environments throughout the day.
Sensory processing is a critical part of every child’s development. As parents we instinctively expose our kids to new sensations as they develop. We put them in a swing, show them pictures in a book, play music, hold and cuddle them.
All of those sensations they receive help form the brain, and that’s why giving any child the opportunity to participate in activities that stimulate their senses is good for their development.
What is an Example of Sensory Processing?
The brain’s sensory processing is ALWAYS at work.
For instance, as a child sits at a desk at school their sensory processing is sorting out the sensations of the way the chair feels under them, the clothes on their body, the smell of lunch being cooked down the hall, the sound of the teachers voice, and the light that’s flickering overhead in the corner.
Often, many of these sensations are ignored like the way the clothing feels on our body or the slow flicker of the light, while others are given attention like the teacher’s voice and the smell of lunch which results in learning what is being taught and a hungry grumbling tummy.
However, sensory processing is unique to every child, to every person, because it’s based on neurological connections. How one child perceives and responds to sensory input can be quite different from the next child and the child after that.
For example, a different child might be highly distracted by the flickering light, they can’t stop noticing it. Their sensory processing is choosing to register that sensory information.
Or, they might be bothered by the jeans their mom made them wear to school. They feel scratchy and uncomfortable. Again, sensory processing is allowing that sensation to register.
In both of these last two examples of sensory processing this can cause a child to struggle to pay attention and learn. If these challenges arise day after day, kids often get labeled as “bad” or “difficult,” but that isn’t what’s going on at all.
Watch this short video and see how hidden sensory issues can be:
Some Kids have Sensory Processing Issues…
Sometimes these differences in sensory processing, or what you can think of as neurodivergence are referred to as “sensory issues,” not my favorite term, but it does indicate that some kids’ sensory processing doesn’t have the typical response we’d expect.
While different is good, “sensory issues” can become problematic when they interfere with a child’s daily life.
If the sensory system is over-responding, under-responding, or seeking more sensory experiences then kids can struggle to pay attention, social interactions, learn, sit at the table, or sleep.
Over-responding sensory systems often cause kids to have sensitivities, sometimes extreme to touching different textures, smells, tastes, loud noises, bright lights, or movement such as swinging or rough housing.
Under-responding sensory systems (also called low registration) often leave kids distracted, lethargic, and “zoned out”.
And, kids that seek sensations often never stop moving, are labeled “wild”, make big messes, lick odd things, smell everything in their environment, and constantly touch everything!
Sensory processing is a spectrum so each child can fall at varying degrees of any of these types of sensory processing difficulties. In fact, all of us have some tendencies in these areas, it becomes a problem or is considered a neurological disorder when sensory processing has a big impact on everyday life in a negative way.
Because sensory issues can look like a kid being bad, sensitive, or quirky, check out 10 commonly missed “sensory red flags.”
Are Sensory Issues the Same Thing as Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)?
Many kids and adults have sensory issues, and don’t have or need a diagnosis. If sensory issues are having a significant daily impact on an individual’s life then they may receive a Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) diagnosis.
While SPD isn’t an official diagnosis that is in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) that clinicians use to diagnose, it is a widely accepted disorder by occupational therapists and various other health professionals.
Right now occupational therapists typically evaluate children for sensory processing disorder. Some symptoms of SPD are:
- Impulsively moving often and/or dangerously
- High sensitivities to lights, sounds, smells, textures, tastes, or movement
- Lethargy despite being well rested and nourished
- Poor attention and following direction as a result of sensory processing
- Poor following directions as a result of sensory processing
- Experiences sensory overload or meltdowns from too much sensory stimulation on a regular basis
- Difficulty falling or staying asleep as a result of sensory processing
However, these are just some of the signs, and often it’s the combination of several or more of these signs that points to an individual having SPD. If you want to see more signs and learn more about the sub-types of this diagnosis head to 33 Signs of Sensory Processing Disorder.
Why Do Some Kids Have Sensory Issues?
Some risk factors for sensory issues are birth complications, drug/alcohol exposure in utero, and premature birth because the sensory system is one of the last to develop in utero.
However, many kids have sensory issues that don’t have any of these risk factors. Some theorize environmental toxins, but we don’t have any definitive evidence.
Does Having Sensory Issues Mean a Child Has Autism or ADHD?
Sensory issues or SPD are a separate neurological difficulty, and many children struggle with sensory challenges that don’t have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or Attention Deficient Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). However, it seems that at least 80% of kids with Autism also have a comorbidity with SPD, and 40% of kids with ADHD.
It’s common to see these diagnoses together, but they are each their own stand alone neurological diagnosis.
How to Help Kids with Sensory Issues: Treatment Options
Kids that have Sensory Processing Disorder, or any sensory issues that are impacting their life may qualify for occupational therapy, even more specifically sensory integration therapy, which is done through a specially trained occupational therapist.
This therapy usually takes place once a week and works to create more efficient neurological connections and pathways that change an individual’s sensory processing.
Young children will often see the quickest results, as their brains are more plastic, or malleable. However, it is still possible to see these changes in older children as well.
Another treatment option is utilizing a sensory diet on a daily basis to help your child manage their various sensory challenges throughout the day. This is usually set up by an occupational therapist, but it’s important that the sensory diet is effective and able to be managed by parents.
Inside our RISE with Sensory program we teach parents a 4 step formula for creating their own sensory diet and adjusting as needed daily and over time. You can learn some beginning steps in our free workshop here.
Are Sensory Activities Beneficial for Sensory Issues?
In general sensory activities are beneficial to kids and adults alike because they have the power to regulate and ground our nervous system. And, as I mentioned earlier they also support all development.
But, sometimes sensory activities can cause a child to become dysregulated.
It all depends on what their unique sensory issues are, as we discussed above whether they are seekers, avoiders, or have low registration.
Of course, sensory issues can fluctuate throughout the day as well.
This is why it’s critical to never force a child to participate in a sensory activity, but to offer it and follow their lead.
You may want to start with heavy work activities, which are perfect for seekers. Or, focus on a specific type of sensory issue. For instance, let’s say your kid chews on everything all the time, then using oral sensory activities could be very helpful.
What Happens if Kids Don’t Get Treated for Sensory Processing Issues?
Unfortunately, because SPD isn’t an official diagnosis it does often run under the radar for some doctors, and kids might miss getting diagnosed. In this case, kids will face challenges and probably confusion about why their body or distraction seems to be working against them.
They may continue to struggle with learning, social skills, paying attention, severe picky eating, and difficulty sleeping.
Some kids will devise clever solutions and find ways to minimize their sensitivities or get their needs met with movement.
One thing you can do is teach your child about this incredible part of their brain, that is sensory processing. If you don’t find support from your doctor, there’s a lot you can do as a parent or teacher to empower and help your child.
No matter what type of sensory processing issues your child has, it’s helpful to explain sensory processing to them. We have a helpful article on how to explain sensory “issues” that includes a video created for kids that you can show them.
Grab the 21 Sensory Red Flags Free Printable
To get a better idea of what sensory issues, or red flags, are often missed in kids, click here to get a printable of 21 of the most commonly missed red flags. You can save this, share it with a caregiver or teacher as well, so they can begin to understand and support your child better.
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Sensory Integration and the Child Jean A. Ayers (Western Psychological Services 1994)
Alisha Grogan is a licensed occupational therapist and founder of Your Kid’s Table. She has over 19 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.