So, let’s start at the beginning. Sensory processing difficulties are often first recognised in a child’s early years as a toddler. Parents may notice their child avoids (or has aversions) to certain things such as light, noise or certain types of touch. Parents may also notice children are having difficulty doing up their buttons, grasping or holding a pen (fine motor skills) or being unbalanced and having difficulty coordinating (gross motor skills).
Doesn’t sound too bad, right?
Well we also know that sensory processing difficulties can lead to children experiencing such discomfort that they display behaviours such as screaming, eating things they shouldn’t, refusing to dress and difficulty being out and about or in school.
So what does all this mean?
Children and adults who experience sensory processing difficulties have trouble integrating the information received from their senses. All day we have information being sent to our brain through our senses. There are 8 senses in total, we often think about the first 5;
There are three more which are sometimes overlooked which are;
· Body movement/vestibular system
· Body awareness/proprioception
· Interoception is the most recently discovered sensation which helps you understand what is going on inside your body.
I go into more detail about these senses in my other post “The 8 senses; yes there are 8!”
When we have sensory processing difficulties the brain has trouble receiving and responding to information that comes in through our senses. This may look like over-sensitivity or under-sensitivity to sensory input. If you are oversensitive you may avoid certain input such as loud noises, tags on clothing or avoiding certain textures of food. If you are under-sensitive then you may seek inputs such as movement, chewing on non-edible items or eating strong tasting foods. It’s important to remember that someone will not only be a “seeker” or “avoider” they may seek and avoid different inputs.
Sensory overload can occur when the sensory input is too overwhelming and leads to a feeling of extreme discomfort. We often see this look like “meltdowns” where a child or adult may scream, cry or flee to try and decrease this discomfort or “regulate”. It can take time and experimentation to find out which environments and inputs are overwhelming and then find tools that support them to regulate (feel less overwhelmed and more calm).
Sensory processing difficulties are now considered a characteristic of autism because the majority of children and adults on the autism spectrum also have significant sensory issues. However, many children with sensory issues are not on the spectrum. They can also be found in those with ADHD, OCD, Anxiety and other developmental delays — or with no other diagnosis at all.
As a parent and a person with sensory processing difficulties the world can be a tricky place to navigate and learning how to support someone with these difficulties can be a journey. However, with time and understanding many people can find creative, fun and inventive strategies to stay calm throughout the day. Occupational therapists are often a great support as well as linking with other people who experience sensory processing difficulties.