About sensory processing difficulties
Sensory processing difficulties are a group of 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, or 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 in 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) – that is, they take in too much sensory information
- undersensitive (hyposensitive) – that is, 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.
Your child hides or runs away from common sounds like the sound of the vacuum cleaner. Or your child is hard to settle during or after noisy activities or birthday parties.
Your child avoids brightly lit places or avoids looking at faces or busy spaces like walls with lots of pictures. Or your child prefers dull-coloured clothes or food.
Smell and taste
Your child walks away from strong smells like perfume or eats only bland foods.
Your child avoids messy play, rubs hands or fingers or holds them tightly together after touching everyday objects, or refuses to wear clothes like socks with seams on the toes.
Movement or body position
Your child avoids playground equipment like swings or monkey bars, or gets upset or feels unwell in cars or on public transport.
Other internal sensations
Your child is upset by changes in temperature. Your child avoids having a bath or swimming, or avoids going to the toilet because she doesn’t like the feeling. Or your child 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.
Your child doesn’t notice noises like alarms or always wants the volume on loud.
Your child likes to watch lights go on and off, or doesn’t notice changes in personal details, like someone having a new haircut.
Smell and taste
Your child seeks out strong smells, or likes strong tastes like salty or spicy food.
Your child doesn’t respond when someone taps him on the shoulder, or he fidgets a lot or drops things that are easy to hold.
Movement or body position
Your child doesn’t like being turned upside down or stretching a lot.
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 lots of sensory experiences, like dressing herself.
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 about your child’s sensory-related behaviours, for you and your child’s teachers, playgroup leaders or educators to complete
- face-to-face observations or tests.
A multidisciplinary team with several professionals might assess your child if he 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 for children with sensory processing difficulties
Sensory processing difficulties might get better over time without treatment, although treatment can help you and your child manage his current difficulties and behaviour.
Treatment options might include:
- working with an occupational therapist to help your child manage daily activities like brushing teeth or getting dressed, or to reduce your child’s sensory difficulties with desensitisation programs – for example, getting used to a noisy shop by going in for a few minutes at first then building up the time spent in the shop
- working with several specialists and professionals in a multidisciplinary team to help with behaviour that’s interfering with everyday life – for example, being distracted in class, not liking having her hair washed or brushed, or being fearful of swings and other playground equipment
- working with a psychologist to help with anxiety in situations where sensory experiences can be unpredictable or overwhelming, like your child worrying she’ll have to eat certain foods if she goes to someone’s house for dinner
- equipment to manage specific symptoms – for example, sound-blocking headphones
- medications to help 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.
More research is needed to understand the causes of sensory processing difficulties.