About sensory processing difficulties
Sensory processing difficulties are symptoms and related behaviours that happen when someone has trouble taking in information from their senses and responding appropriately to it.
This can be information related to sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste. It can also be information related to internal sensations in the body, like pain and movement sensations.
Some children with sensory processing difficulties might behave in unusual ways or ways that aren’t typical for their age. Others might avoid particular activities.
Most children have trouble with sensory information sometimes. But when these reactions happen frequently, or for long periods of time, they can interfere with social interaction, learning, behaviour or development.
Children with sensory processing difficulties might be:
- oversensitive (hypersensitive), which means they take in too much sensory information
- undersensitive (hyposensitive), which means they take in too little sensory information.
Sensory processing difficulties affect up to 1 in 6 children.
Sensory processing difficulties and sensory processing disorder: what’s the difference?
You might hear the terms sensory processing disorder or sensory modulation disorder. These aren’t recognised disorders in Australia.
But these terms are sometimes used when sensory processing difficulties get in the way of everyday activities.
Symptoms of sensory processing difficulties: oversensitivity
Here are some examples of behaviour that you might see if your child is oversensitive, sometimes called hypersensitive.
- hides or runs away from common sounds like the sound of the vacuum cleaner
- is hard to settle during or after noisy activities or birthday parties.
- avoids brightly lit places
- avoids looking at faces or busy spaces like walls with a lot of pictures
- prefers dull-coloured clothes or food.
Smell and taste
Your child walks away from strong smells like perfume or eats only bland foods.
- avoids messy play
- rubs hands or fingers or holds them tightly together after touching everyday objects
- refuses to wear clothes like socks with seams on the toes.
Movement or body position
- avoids playground equipment like swings or monkey bars
- gets upset or feels unwell in cars or on public transport.
Other internal sensations
- is upset by changes in temperature
- avoids having a bath or swimming
- avoids going to the toilet because they don’t like the feeling
- is hard to settle after a minor cut or scrape.
Symptoms of sensory processing difficulties: undersensitivity
Here are some examples of behaviour that you might see if your child is undersensitive, sometimes called hyposensitive.
- doesn’t notice noises like alarms
- always wants the volume on loud.
- likes to watch lights go on and off
- doesn’t notice changes in personal details, like someone having a new haircut.
Smell and taste
- seeks out strong smells
- likes strong tastes like salty or spicy food.
- doesn’t respond when someone taps them on the shoulder
- fidgets a lot or drops things that are easy to hold.
Movement or body position
- likes to move constantly
- enjoys fast, intense activities like being tossed in the air or jumping on furniture.
Other internal sensations
Your child doesn’t seem to feel pain.
Some children with sensory processing difficulties can be a mixture of oversensitive and undersensitive. Their reactions can vary depending on the situation and environment.
Other signs of sensory processing difficulties
If your child has sensory processing difficulties, you might also notice that your child:
- gets anxious or worried in busy or unpredictable environments like parties or on public transport
- finds it hard to focus
- gets tired, particularly in busy environments like playgrounds and shopping centres
- has trouble getting to sleep and staying asleep
- avoids tasks that involve a lot of sensory experiences, like dressing themselves.
Assessment of sensory processing difficulties
If you’re concerned that your child has sensory processing difficulties, it’s a good idea to talk with your GP. Your GP can refer your child to a health professional with expertise in sensory processing difficulties – for example, an occupational therapist, psychologist or paediatrician.
Health professionals assess sensory processing difficulties in various ways. This will often involve looking at your child’s sensory-related behaviour and how this behaviour affects your child’s and family’s everyday life.
Assessment might include:
- interviews with you and your child’s other carers or educators
- interviews with your child
- questionnaires for you and your child’s educators about your child’s sensory-related behaviour
- face-to-face observations or tests.
A multidisciplinary team with several professionals might assess your child if your child also has other difficulties. They might assess your child’s social communication, attention and concentration, movement skills, learning abilities, or general developmental progress.
Health professionals might also do a general health check to rule out other causes for the concerns.
Treatment, therapies and supports for children with sensory processing difficulties
Sensory processing difficulties might get better by themselves over time, but therapy and supports can help you and your child manage their current difficulties and behaviour.
For example, your child might work with an occupational therapist on learning to manage daily activities like brushing teeth or getting dressed. The occupational therapist might also use desensitisation programs to reduce your child’s sensory difficulties. For example, your child might learn to handle noisy shops by going into a shop for a few minutes at first. Over time, your child might increase the time they spend in the shop.
Your child might need help with behaviour that interferes with everyday life. This might include being distracted in class, not liking their hair being washed or brushed, or being fearful of swings and other playground equipment. Several specialists and professionals might work in a multidisciplinary team on issues like these.
Or your child might need help to manage anxiety in situations where sensory experiences can be unpredictable or overwhelming. An example might be going to someone’s house for dinner and eating unfamiliar food. A psychologist can help here.
Other support options might include:
- equipment to manage specific symptoms – for example, sound-blocking headphones
- medicines to manage specific symptoms like sleep difficulties or anxiety.
Causes of sensory processing difficulties
We don’t know what causes sensory processing difficulties. Some experts think there might be problems in the way the senses and the brain talk to each other. These might happen as a result of inherited genes and things that happen to genes following conception and birth. Sensory processing difficulties also tend to run in families.
More research is needed to understand the causes of sensory processing difficulties.