Sensory issues in children: What they are and why they matter
I first heard about sensory issues in children about 7 or 8 years ago now. I was working with a young girl with anxiety, and she was experiencing some symptoms that didn’t quite fit with her anxiety diagnosis. We knew they were related to her anxiety. But it was also clear that anxiety was not the complete picture. Something else was going on for her.
So to work out exactly what that was, her parents enlisted the help of a paediatric Occupational Therapist (OT). And I heard about sensory issues in children for the very first time.
Now, since that time, I’ve learned a lot about sensory issues in children. And what I’ve learned has been immensely helpful, both professionally, and with my own kids! I know that sensory processing is incredibly important when it comes to self regulation. I know that providing a child with the right balance of sensory input can help them:
- Better regulate their emotions
- Learn more effectively
- Improve their social skills and relationships
- Control their body and behaviour
Bu sensory issues in children is still a topic that is far from my area of expertise. So for this blog, I’ve enlisted the help of OT extraordinaire, mama of 2, and owner of Kids Develop Store, Ellena Batsakis.
What is sensory processing?
We experience the world through our senses, and then our brain has to interpret and make sense of the information it receives. This is how we are able to interact with our environment in a meaningful way. Sensory processing is the act of interpreting, organising, and responding to the information that we receive via our senses.
How do we receive sensory information?
Most of us know about the five senses of sight, touch, taste, sound and smell. But the body actually has eight different systems for receiving and processing sensory information from our environment. And they all need to work together!
Two sensory systems that many people are unaware of, are the vestibular system, and the proprioceptive system. The vestibular system is the system responsible for interpreting and integrating information related to our balance and motion.
Ellena says, “Receptors in our inner ears give us information about how fast we are moving and the direction we are going which helps our balance. Our vision as well as our hands and feet work with the inner ears to feel stable and safe.”
And the proprioceptive system is responsible for organising information about the position of our body in space. Ellena says, “When it works effectively, we don’t need to always rely on our vision. We can put on clothes without a mirror. It allows us to use the right amount of force so we can carry a glass without dropping it or crushing it.”
Ellena points out that all nervous systems are different and we each have different sensory thresholds. This means we all process sensory information differently, and we all have different sensory preferences too.
“One child may benefit from lots of jumping and movement to feel calm and focused. The child sitting next to them may have trouble integrating vestibular input and finds trampolines scary. She is hesitant when climbing and car rides make her nauseous. This child may prefer to fidget with her hands to feel calm and focused. “
Ellena says that our sensory preferences also change over time and across circumstances. “Our ability to tolerate certain sensations like loud noise, itchy fabrics or our need for movement changes all the time. Factors such as hunger, lack of sleep and stress levels alter our ability to cope with sensory information.”
“Kids may manage in the music hall in the morning but by the end of the day, they are feeling highly overwhelmed and tired. And so the smallest amount of noise sends them into a meltdown. Our nervous systems are also ever-changing. Which means that nourishing our bodies with calming tools can make a huge difference in the way kids manage these daily sensory events.”
Sensory Processing Disorder
For the most part, our sensory differences and preferences don’t have a huge impact on the way we function from day to day. “Typical nervous systems are able to manage ‘sensory events’ like brushing knots out of our hair, heavy traffic or the noise from the neighbour’s lawn mower. We can often tolerate irritants and recover from these”, says Ellena.
But for some kids, sensory processing problems make life much more difficult. You see, our brains are constantly receiving sensory information as we interact with our environment. And it constantly has to decide what information it needs and what information is unnecessary. Which obviously changes depending on the task we’re engaged in. A lot of the information around us gets filtered out. This allows us to focus our attention on what we are doing (and get the job done!).
However, some people have nervous systems that are a little too sensitive, or not sensitive enough. An over responsive system has trouble filtering out unnecessary sensory information. This child responds too frequently and attempts to process too much irrelevant information.
An under responsive system filters out too much information that it may actually need. This child doesn’t respond enough to sensory information. Or, they need extremely strong stimulation before they respond. “For these kids, their nervous system might not register small amounts of movement, pain or sound”, says Ellena. But both of these children will find it difficult to interact with their environment in order to complete tasks, learn, and even play effectively!
Why is sensory processing important?
If your child has problems with sensory processing, then their responses to internal and external stimuli may be inappropriate. This is because they are having trouble with self regulation.
The nervous system is constantly working to regulate itself. If it feels under-stimulated, it will seek out more stimulation. If it feels overwhelmed, it will try to avoid stimulation. Most of us manage this balance during the day with minimal disruption to our functioning. But for children with sensory issues, achieving self regulation is much harder. Their nervous system has to expend more energy to return to an optimal level of arousal.
What do sensory issues in children look like?
Kids with sensory issues will have more trouble managing their physical activity, thoughts and emotional responses. They will also have problems adjusting those responses to meet the demands of a task or particular social situation. You may notice problems in the following areas:
Behaviour: If your child is unable to effectively process sensory information, you may see what some might consider ‘misbehaviour’ from them. Ellena says, “Some children who feel overwhelmed with sensory information do whatever they can to avoid it and often develop rigid routines. They may be argumentative and have trouble transitioning between activities or even withdraw to feel safe.”
Learning: Children who have trouble processing sensory information in a classroom may be more easily distracted. They might have trouble focusing and paying attention, following instructions, or completing tasks. And that makes learning and mastering new skills much more difficult for them.
Relationships: Children who are not effectively processing sensory information may have trouble forming relationships and playing alongside their peers. They may miss social cues due to under-responsiveness. Or they may accidentally hurt their peers due to a lack of body awareness.
Emotion regulation: Feeling overwhelmed by sensory information can lead to emotional outbursts and meltdowns in your child. This is because their nervous system comes under stress more easily than others. They may enter fight or flight mode more quickly than other children and then struggle to return to baseline.
Supporting your child’s sensory needs
In order for your child’s nervous system to be operating at its best, it needs to find an optimal level of arousal. And what your child needs to achieve and maintain an optimal level of arousal will depend on their unique sensory profile and preferences. So exactly how do you manage sensory issues in children? And how can you provide them with the strategies and resources they need to self regulate?
If you want to support your child’s sensory needs and help them with self regulation, Ellena recommends you “Identify exactly what your child or student needs according to the demands of their routine. For example, this may involve lots of stretching and resistance work on Monday morning before assembly when sitting is required. After running around during sport, the same child may benefit from some down time in a darkened room, listening to music.”
Using sensory tools in your calm down space
One of the things I recommend to parents and teachers who want to help children regulate their emotions, is to set up a calm down space. You can read more about setting up a calm down space here. But basically, these are safe, soothing, spaces that children can retreat to when they are feeling overwhelmed and need a break. And what I always suggest is that these spaces include items that provide sensory input to help calm overwhelmed nervous systems.
The sensory tools in your calm down space should include items that provide a mixture of different types of sensory input. You can try items like stress balls, stretchy bands, weighted blankets and toys, or pillows and cushions with sequins. You can try photos or pictures that your child enjoys looking at. A favourite scented lotion or essential oils. Or some calming music or meditations to listen to.
And of course, you can also try out some movement based activities like the ones included on my Mindful Little Calm Down Cards. Activities like hanging upside down, spinning around, jumping on a trampoline, or doing heavy lifting provide both proprioceptive and vestibular input. These two types of sensory input can be particularly helpful for kids as that many children don’t get anywhere near enough! Especially if they are school aged and spend a long time sitting at a desk in a a classroom.
Over time you will get to know what your child’s unique needs and preferences are. And with a bit of focused investigation (and plenty of trial and error!) you will find the right sensory tools to support your child so they can learn to calm their nervous system and regulate their big emotions!
Sarah is a psychologist, mama of 4 and the creator of Mindful Little Minds. She has over 10 years of experience working with children, adolescents and families experiencing mental health problems and has a special interest in anxiety disorders in children. In her spare time she enjoys hugging her kids, drinking coffee, and telling anyone who’ll listen how tired she is.