Sensory challenges are common and affect both children with and without disabilities. Many children with no other health concerns may have sensory challenges and need the support of an occupational therapist or a feeding specialist.
The sensory system is a complex group of neurons (cells in the body), cell pathways and parts of the brain that work together to allow an individual to feel different sensations from the environment. There are eight different senses that make up the sensory system.
The 8 Senses
- Seeing (vision)
- Hearing (auditory)
- Smelling (olfactory)
- Tasting (gustatory)
- Touching or Feeling (tactile)
- Joint and Muscle Awareness (proprioceptive)
- Balance and Movement (vestibular)
- Internal Body Awareness (interoception)
It is the job of the caregiver to discover a child’s sensory preferences (what sensations their body likes most and least) and any sensory challenges in order to make all daily routines and activities more comfortable and manageable.
Conditions Commonly Associated With Sensory Challenges
Many children with no other health issues may experience sensory challenges. But, when a condition, illness or disability is present, sensory systems can become more or less sensitive. Furthermore, when a child has been exposed to stressful and/or traumatic life events, these too can shape and impact their sensory system.
Conditions, illnesses or disabilities often connected with sensory system challenges may include:
- Autism spectrum disorders (ASD)
- Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD) and substance (drug) exposed children
- Cerebral palsy (CP)
- Down syndrome (Trisomy 21)
- Deaf and hard of hearing
- Vision impairments
- Prematurity, low birth weight and medically fragile children
- Exposure to stress and/or traumatic experiences, particularly early on in a child’s life
What Are Sensory Challenges?
Every individual, whether they are a baby, child, adolescent or adult, has a unique sensory system. Additionally, we all can have sensory systems that lean more toward being hyposensitive (understimulated or sensory seeking), hypersensitive (overstimulated or sensory avoiding), or a combination of both that can ebb and flow in different directions and intensities. Neither category is “good” nor “bad.”
There is also great variation in what our sensory experiences may feel like over the course of a given day, week, year or lifetime. What is most important to understand is what each individual’s sensory system, preferences and potential challenges look like; what underlying causes may be connected to these preferences and challenges; and how we might best offer support in the form of uniquely tailored strategies.
Sensory challenges with a baby or child can occur when the body does not process and control sensory information as well as would be expected, thereby leading to increased difficulties in daily activities and routines. This can create increased stress for the child and their caregivers. Mealtimes can become highly stressful, as they are one of the most sensory-rich experiences for a baby and child.
There is great variation in what our sensory experiences may feel like over the course of a given day, week, year or lifetime.
Babies and children who are most likely to display increased sensory system needs include those with cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, autism spectrum disorders, and fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, as well as children with visual or hearing impairments and those who are medically fragile, born early or exposed to substances in the womb. Some sensory needs and/or challenges may be present for only a short period of time, while others may persist over a longer duration, including several years or the span of a child’s life.
Below are brief descriptions of these two categories of primary sensory challenges. Note that even adults may relate to some of these, as we all have our very own distinctive sensory systems!
Hyposensitive Sensory System
This is when an individual is less sensitive or reactive to various types of sensory information. Because of this lower threshold of sensitivity, these individuals often seek out more sensory stimulation from their environment. For example:
A child might seek out a certain food or non-food textures to touch or eat that provide more sensory input.
- Prefers crunchy, harder foods to wet, softer food textures.
- Enjoys frequently holding, touching or interacting with certain items and textures.
- Enjoys being bundled up in clothing or blankets.
A child might seek out certain tastes, smells, sounds and visual stimuli that may be more “intense” to provide more sensory input.
- Preference for “big” flavors, such as sour or spicy foods.
- Enjoys watching shows with lots of movement, color, sound effects and music.
A child might seek out movement-based activities and/or physical activities that provide the body with more sensory input.
- Prefers frequent physical contact, such as hugs, body “squishes,” wrestling, roughhouse play and “crashing” into items and people.
- Enjoys running, jumping, climbing, biking, swinging and other activities that use their entire body.
- Frequently move or fidget and rarely seem to sit still.
- Puts large amounts of food in their mouth to better “feel” what is happening.
A child might display reduced reactions to what may be perceived as pain (i.e., a higher-than-expected pain tolerance).
A child might display reduced physical boundaries with others.
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Hypersensitive Sensory System
This is when an individual is highly sensitive or reactive to various types of sensory information. Because of this higher threshold of sensitivity, these individuals often avoid certain sensory stimulation from their environment. For example:
A child might avoid certain food and non-food textures to touch or eat that provide more sensory input than is tolerable.
- Prefers dry to wet foods because they are not as messy to touch and eat.
- Frequently avoids holding, touching or interacting with certain items or textures.
- Avoids wearing certain types of clothing or shoes that can feel different on their body.
A child might avoid certain tastes, smells, sounds and visual stimuli of food and non-food items that provide more sensory input than is tolerable.
- Frequently refuses new foods or certain textures of foods.
- Avoids self-feeding and dislikes getting “messy” during mealtimes or play.
- Smells each bite or sip of food and drink, sometimes avoiding certain foods or drinks upon smelling them.
A child might avoid certain environments or places that are “busy” with lots of activity (people, visual stimuli, sounds, smells, etc.) that provide more sensory input than is tolerable.
- Startles easily or become highly distractible or upset by louder noises or visual input.
- Seeks out or seems to prefer places that are quieter, darker or less crowded and overwhelming.
A child might avoid certain activities that may provide more sensory input than is tolerable.
- Dislikes playing in a sandbox, on a beach or with items that might be messy.
- Avoids interacting with items that have more intense smells or physical characteristics (i.e., Play-Doh, paint, bubbles, certain foods at mealtimes).
- Avoids experiences that involve more physical contact (i.e., hugging, holding hands, washing hair, getting a haircut, etc.).
A child might display an increased reaction to what may or may not be perceived as pain (i.e., a lower-than-expected pain tolerance).
A child might display increased sensitivity to small changes within activities, routines and environments.
If you have questions or specific difficulties regarding your child’s sensory system, seek assistance from an expert in your community, such as a feeding specialist or occupational therapist. These experts can provide many different resources and strategies to support a child who is experiencing sensory issues.
See our Sensory Solutions page for ideas on how to help with the sensory challenges discussed above.
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All parents encounter challenges as their children grow up. And sometimes, issues may arise that leave you uncertain as to how best to respond. But not every issue requires therapy or counseling. The PACE program is here to help during those times.