Sensory issues impede children from readily seeking out experiences that allow them to learn about themselves and their physical environment. They may have difficulty receiving and responding to information from their senses.
Children with sensory processing difficulties may experience difficulties figuring out what is going on inside and outside of their bodies. They may have an aversion to anything that triggers their senses, such as light, sound, touch, taste, or smell.
Children may present with different types of sensory difficulties. If their sensory needs are not supported effectively this can lead to avoidance, withdrawal, inattention, and behaviour that challenges.
Sensory difficulties may include:
Hyper (over) sensitive – children who are easily stimulated:
- Dislike of touch / texture experiences, e.g. messy play, physical contact
- Dislike of loud sudden noises
- Dislike of bright lights
- Avoidance of playground equipment (e.g. swings and slides)
- Avoidance of certain foods and food texture, colours, temperatures, etc.
- Dislike or avoidance of certain smells.
These outsized reactions may cause:
- A low pain threshold
- Clumsy, uncoordinated movements
- Withdrawal from activities
- Discomfort and confusion
- Fleeing without regard to safety
- Covering of eyes or ears frequently
- Picky food preferences
These children can be observed to be ‘avoiding’ activities and experiences. They will have trouble suppressing the information that they receive from everyday activities and may feel overloaded, which can cause distress (observed in their behaviour).
Hypo (under) sensitive – children who aren’t so easily stimulated:
- Appear to have no fear or does not feel pain
- Seeks movement or touch opportunities (fidgets, rocks, jumps, leans on peers, runs around)
- Mouths or chews things
- Poor attention / unresponsive to the environment or people around them
- Distractible / over-excited
- Lack of energy
These reactions may cause:
- A high pain threshold
- Bumping into walls
- Touching things
- Putting things into their mouth
- Giving bear hugs
- Crashing into other people or things
These children crave interaction with the world around them; they may interact and engage more with their surroundings to gain sensory feedback. This may make them appear hyperactive when they may simply be trying to make their senses more engaged. These children ‘need’ this feedback so that they can feel ‘just right’. Alternatively, these children may lose focus and appear inattentive because they are not receiving enough input to sustain their involvement and engagement in activities and their environment. These difficulties may also be displayed through their behaviour.
Some children can experience both hypersensitivity (over-responsiveness) and hyposensitivity (under-responsiveness) to a wide range of stimuli. Most people have a combination of both. Children may experience a blend of hyposensitivity and hypersensitivity to different factors, for example feeling overly sensitive to light while not noticing varying sounds. Their sensitivity may also fluctuate for example children may sometimes be over-sensitive to touch yet also crave a deep-pressure hug.
Synaesthesia is a rare condition experienced by some autistic people. An experience goes in through one sensory system and out through another. So a person might hear a sound but experience it as a colour. In other words, they will ‘hear’ the colour blue.
The impact of sensory integration difficulties
The range of difficulties these children can experience can lead to a variety of developmental delays in children, such as:
- Poor postural control
- Poor hand / eye co-ordination
- Difficulty with spatial awareness
- Visual perception deficits
- Poor attention and concentration
- Difficulties with learning
- Poor self-esteem (which can lead to social and emotional difficulties)
Without good sensory discrimination it is difficult to judge how to participate in everyday routines and activities; a child may struggle to know the difference between soft and hard, hot and cold, how hard to push or pull something, detecting a taste of something that we put in our mouth or judging distances between ourselves and others. These again, can be observed in the behaviours that children demonstrate.
Difficulties at the level of sensory integration often contribute to impairment in higher level integrative functions, such as social participation and praxis (the ability to plan and organise movement).
There may be people who have different reactions to sensory information, but this does not interfere with their level of functioning in daily life. For example, a child may not like a particular smell, taste or texture on their skin, but this does not interfere with their participation in daily activities. Our individual likes and dislikes are what make us unique.
However, there are some individuals who have difficulty interpreting sensory information and this can impact on how they feel, think, behave and respond.
This can interfere with how they perform in play activities, at school, in life activities, with self-care tasks, learning and relationships.
Sensory processing difficulties can have a negative impact on a child at home, in school and in the community in the following areas:
- Emotional stability
- Social communication and participation
- Self-regulation e.g. eating, toileting, sleep.
- Motor skills e.g. washing, dressing, handwriting, cutting with scissors, participation in sports/ P.E