Sensory information is what your brain registers from the information that your senses give about the world around you. The smell of a fresh-baked pizza (smell), the taste of a sweet mango (taste), the color of a beautiful flower (sight), the melody of your favorite song (hearing), and the warm feeling on your hands when you hold a cup of hot coffee (touch), etc., are information that our brain provides when it receives signals from our sensory system.
Sensory processing helps us function in daily life and enables us to self-regulate, interact socially, and develop adaptive behavioral skills or abilities (1).
Sensory processing disorder (SPD) is a neurophysiological (associated with the functioning of the nervous system) condition. It alters how a child perceives or processes any sensory information (2). Sensory processing issues are usually identified during toddler years (3).
Learn more about the causes, symptoms, diagnosis, and management of sensory processing disorders in children in this post.
What Are Sensory Processing Issues?
In 1970, Dr. A. Jean Ayres, an occupational therapist, first identified sensory processing difficulties. Dr. Ayres posited the idea that individuals with sensory processing issues cannot process all the information that comes from the following eight senses in their heads (3) (4).
1. Visual sense
The sense of sight
2. Auditory sense
The sense of hearing
3. Tactile sense
The sense of touch
4. Olfactory sense
The sense of smell
5. Gustatory sense
The sense of taste
6. Vestibular sense
Vestibular sense helps one stay stable and upright. Vestibular receptors are located in the inner ear, and they send out signals to the brain regarding your body’s movement and head position. This sense helps you keep your balance and maintain coordination.
Proprioception is the sense of awareness that is present internally in all beings. It tells us where our body parts are.
Interoception refers to how one feels about what is happening in one’s body, physically and emotionally. Children with a lack of interoception may have issues with their emotional feelings as well as how they perceive heat or cold, etc.
When children cannot understand what these senses are trying to tell them, they may exhibit atypical behavior or behavior that falls outside of the normal.
Children with sensory processing disorder can be either hypersensitive or hyposensitive to sensory stimulation. Hypersensitivity to sensory stimulus may cause sensory avoiding behavior, while hyposensitivity may cause sensory-seeking behavior (5). Read on to know more about these in the next section.
Symptoms Of Sensory Processing Disorder
Sensory processing disorder may affect just one or all of your senses. There are two different types of sensory processing challenges (5) (6)
Children with hypersensitivity or oversensitivity to senses avoid sensory stimuli as it may overwhelm them. This can lead to sensory avoiding behaviors.
The following symptoms may be seen if your child is oversensitive to sensory stimuli.
- Finds the regular lights too bright
- Feels their clothes are too itchy or scratchy and might refuse to wear wool, etc.
- Finds a not-very-loud sound to be too loud
- Feels even the soft touches are hard touches
- Feels overwhelmed by people
- Avoids physical interaction with others – touching, hugging, etc.
- Gags on a new food texture
- Has poor body balance
- Refuses small thrill-generating activities, such as playing on a swing
- Has a strong reaction to sudden movements, lights, noises, or touch
- Has behavior problems
- Shows poor motor skills
- Exhibits trouble with finer skills, such as buttoning their shirt, holding a pen, and using scissors
- Has low muscle tone
- Shows language delays
- Frequently closes their eyes or ears as they cannot tolerate loud noises or bright lights
Children with hyposensitivity or under sensitivity look for sensory stimuli. They exhibit sensory-seeking behavior.
The following symptoms may be seen if your child is hypersensitive.
- Inability to sit still (constant motion)
- Seeks thrill from activities such as jumping from heights and spinning
- Keeps spinning but does not feel dizzy
- Does not pick up social cues
- Does not recognize personal space
- Chews on clothes, hands, etc.
- Stimulates themselves visually by watching TV programs or videos
- Have problems in getting sound sleep
- Inability to sense when their face is dirty or their nose is running
- Keeps touching people and things to feel contact and pressure
- Often gets anxious or distracted
- Has a high tolerance to pain
- Does not understand that they might hurt someone and indulges in rough play
A few children may have symptoms of both hypersensitivity and hyposensitivity. They may react to the same situation differently on different days, and their reactions may also alter largely during the day.
Children with SPD are highly sensitive to any new changes and transitions. A new home, different rooms, a change in classrooms, a switch in activities, new curtains, etc., may not be well-taken by them and can lead to severe emotional meltdown or withdrawal. It might also be more difficult to potty-train children with sensory disorders.
Causes Of Sensory Processing Disorder
The exact cause of sensory processing disorder is not known. However, preliminary research suggests a genetic predisposition to the condition. It is believed that children inherit it from their parents. Prenatal and birth-related complications may also cause sensory processing disorder in children.
Certain environmental factors may also be responsible for it. More research in the field needs to be done to understand the role of genetic and environmental factors in the development of sensory processing disorder in children (4).
Diagnosis Of SPD In Children
Most diagnoses of SPD in children are reached when parents of children complain about atypical behavior. The pediatrician may refer the parents to an occupational therapist, who might help them find answers and solutions to the child’s behavior (5).
The therapist will observe the child’s reactions in differently created situations and ask the child a few questions to make the correct diagnoses.
The Sensory Integration and Praxis Tests (SIPT) may help in understanding the atypical behavior of children.
Sensory integration is the neurological process that helps organize the sensations of the skin, eyes, joints, gravity, and movement sensory receptors.
Praxis, on the other hand, is the ability of a human being by which one learns how to use the hands and body in an organized manner. It helps one in all basic activities, such as using a spoon and fork, building a structure, playing with toys, engaging in different occupations, etc.
There are a total of 17 SIPTs. These tests are performed as the occupational therapist deems necessary (7).
Do not hesitate to report all of your observations regarding your child’s behavior to the therapist to help them reach a correct diagnosis.
Treatment For Sensory Processing Issues
Early diagnosis and treatment are keys to treating SPD. There are no medications for treating sensory processing issues, and the primary treatment option is therapy. Trained therapists offer therapy to help children manage their challenges well.
The following are the different types of therapy for children with sensory issues (5) (6).
1. Sensory integration therapy (SI)
This therapy helps children feel sensory stimuli via fun activities in a controlled environment without overwhelming them. The therapist helps children develop coping skills to different stimuli in everyday life.
2. Sensory diet
Sensory diet does not refer to a food chart but a list of sensory activities to be done at home and school. A well-designed sensory diet can aid in making the therapy more effective. It is customized depending on the child’s condition and needs.
A well-defined sensory diet might include one or more of the following.
a. At home
- Jumping jacks
- Exercising on a therapy ball
- Doing push-ups
- Going down on slides
- Climbing a staircase
b. At school
- Walking for ten minutes every hour
- Swinging for ten minutes twice a day
- Listening to music via headphones
- Playing with fidget toys
- Move the legs while sitting
- Sitting away from doors, windows, etc.
3. Occupational therapy
An occupational therapist can help the child improve their fine motor skills by indulging them in activities such as throwing a ball, climbing stairs, improving handwriting, using scissors, using a spoon and fork, and closing buttons.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. Can sensory processing disorder be prevented or avoided?
SPD cannot be prevented or avoided as the disease’s cause is unknown (5).
2. Are sensory issues a part of another condition?
Until 2013, sensory issues were considered part of autism spectrum disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). However, a breakthrough study in 2013 revealed that SPD has a formal diagnosis and is not necessarily associated with autism spectrum disorders or ADHD (6) (8) (9). Some doctors believe that children with autism are at a higher risk of developing SPD.
3. How common are sensory issues in children?
Sensory issues are seen in about 1 in 20 to 1 in 6.25 children in the US general population. A Finnish study concluded that sensory abnormalities were seen in about 8.3% of eight-year-olds (10).
Sensory issues can be dealt with better if children are diagnosed and treated early. If you notice any unusual behavior in your child, do not wait or hesitate to talk to a child care professional. The therapy they get will help improve their quality of life. Also, remember that sensory processing disorder can be a standalone condition and is not always accompanied by other diseases such as ADHD or autism.