Has your child suddenly screamed when you turned on the vacuum cleaner or tried to brush their hair? Gagged at the odor of certain foods? Refused to wear clothes? Or had an out-of-the-blue meltdown at the store?
These and other oversized emotional reactions and behaviors arise from sensory sensitivity.
Most people have a hard time understanding sensory challenges because they quickly and naturally adapt to the constant barrage of daily sensations. But sensory issues dramatically affect the daily life of children with autism.
Can you imagine being overwhelmed by common environmental stimuli that others don’t notice? How can a child pay attention in school if they can’t tune out the buzz of fluorescent lights, the odors wafting from the cafeteria, the room’s temperature, or the feel of their shirt?
These uncomfortable sensations become overwhelming, leading to reactions that are usually sudden, extreme, and don’t seem to have an obvious cause.
Sensory sensitivity is an expected challenge in children with autism. Though other children may have sensory issues, including those with conditions like attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and developmental delays, the problem affects up to 90% of autistic children.
Our team at THINK Neurology for Kids includes Shaun S. Varghese, MD, Cristina R. Marchesano, MD, Michelle E. Nwosu, MD, Lorena Herbert, MD, Barbara Kiersz-Mueller, DO, Lauren Weaver, MD, Alicia Walls, MD, Sundeep Mandava, MD, James P. Mayo III, M.D., MPH, Una Childers, PA-C, MPAS, Jennifer E. Martin, CPNP-PC, Tammy DeLaGarza, FNP-C, and Robby Korah, FNP-C.
Our physicians and advanced practice providers understand sensory challenges in their many forms and variations. We can identify your child’s sensory issues, recommend personalized treatments, and give you tips for supporting your child and helping them overcome sensory sensitivities.
About sensory sensitivities
Sensory issues occur when children can’t tolerate the information received through their senses. Though the exact cause hasn’t been identified, the experts believe that sensory sensitivity occurs when the brain misinterprets or can’t integrate the information it receives from sensory nerves.
Problems can affect one or more of your child’s senses, including:
- Balance and posture (vestibular senses)
- Body position and movement (proprioception)
- Internal senses such as hunger and thirst (interoception)
There are two types of sensory challenges: Your child may be over-sensitive (hypersensitivity) or under-sensitive (hyposensitivity).
Signs your child has sensory sensitivity
These are the most common signs found in both types of sensory issues:
Children with hypersensitivity essentially feel too intensely or strongly. They’re hyperaware of everyday sensory input. Sensory overload can make children feel overwhelmed, irritated, scared, nauseated, frustrated, and angry. In some cases, it may be painful.
Sensory overload may occur in response to a single stimulus like a loud noise, or it can build up throughout the day due to the effort required to cope with overpowering sensory information.
Hypersensitive children may:
- Not tolerate bright lights or loud noises
- Refuse to wear certain clothes
- Refuse to eat certain foods (due to taste, texture, or smell)
- Be distracted by background noises others don’t hear
- Become overwhelmed by crowds or a crowded room
- Avoid touching things most children love (like clay or paper mâché paste)
- Avoid being touched (not wanting to be hugged or sit near other kids)
- Have difficulty recognizing sensations like hunger
- Not tolerate scents commonly found in room sprays, fabric softeners, shampoo, etc.
These children try to avoid the experiences that trigger their hypersensitivity, which often turns into daily struggles.
Children with hyposensitivity don’t feel enough. As a result, they do the opposite of those with hypersensitivities and seek activities that stimulate them.
Hyposensitive children may:
- Love loud sounds
- Desire firm hugs and deep pressure
- Want to touch different textures
- Want to engage in jumping or bumping activities
- Enjoy foods with strong flavors and odors
- Have a high tolerance for pain
- Enjoy intense, fast movements
- Not realize their own strength
Children who are under-reactive to sensory input may not recognize environmental stimuli, which can cause social problems or even be dangerous. For example, they may talk over others or seek sensory stimulation that could injure their body.
Treatment can help
Sensory sensitivities are complex issues affecting many aspects of your daily life, but they can improve with treatment. For example, we often recommend accommodations that support your child’s success despite sensory challenges. Occupational therapy is another effective option for overcoming sensory issues.
If you have questions about your child’s behaviors or want to learn more about treatments, call THINK Neurology for Kids or connect online to request a sensory evaluation appointment.