Our senses are how we interact with the world. Picture a memory you have—it’s an easy bet this recollection is rooted in at least one of your senses.
You may recall seeing your grandmother in her favorite chair, or smell those yummy cookies your mom baked. You may be able to close your eyes and hear the ocean from your last trip to the beach, or feel the sun on your face. All these sensory experiences are deeply connected to your memories and emotions.
Your sense memories can also be unpleasant—like that time your dog got sprayed by a skunk or the sting when you fell on the playground and scraped your knee.
Your senses also protect you from danger and harm. They’re on the frontlines of your nervous system’s mobilization efforts to respond to any threats to your survival.
When you smell smoke, touch something that’s too hot, hear a loud noise, or see a driver stop short in front of you—your senses feed vital info to your body and brain, helping your nervous system handle any issues you face.
But how do we interpret the info our senses give us? That’s a great question! And it’s one this article will focus on answering—as well as looking at what happens when difficulties occur in our sensory processing systems.
First, let’s learn about what sensory processing is, before we explore what happens when issues are present.
What is sensory processing?
If you’ve been following along with our blog posts recently (and if you haven’t, check it out here!) you’ve probably noticed the theme that many simple-seeming processes are much more complex than they seem. This is true when it comes to sensory processing.
Sensory processing is the system your brain uses to take in, understand, organize, and respond to the sensory input it receives.
And your brain does all this with very little conscious thought or effort. Pretty amazing when you consider it, right?
Part of your sensory processing system also involves how your brain uses the information it receives to respond with consistency and meaning to what it encounters.
For example, if you touch a hot stove—your brain’s probable and appropriate sensory response should be to remove your hand from the offending appliance as quickly as possible.
If you love the smell of lilacs, your brain should both enjoy and remember this scent the next time they’re in bloom.
But more than this—our sensory processing system is closely linked to how we feel. It’s a crucial component of how we experience the world, and integrate our experiences. It underpins our sense of self, safety, and satisfaction. It’s also a major way we interact with others.
This additional, lesser known component of our sensory systems is known as interoception. This sense is involved in helping us understand and process the sensations we experience in our bodies. It’s a vital part of our sensory experiences.
So, what happens when there are issues with the way our brains process and integrate sensory information? By now, It’s easy to see the many obstacles this could present, right?
Let’s dive into learning how sensory processing issues can impact the children who have them, as well as explore what can be done when these issues occur.
How do I know if my child has issues with sensory processing?
For some children, sensory processing isn’t such a smooth, easy process. Their brains struggle to interpret and respond to the sensory information they encounter. As a result, they find it difficult to manage and cope with the various sensory inputs they come across on a daily basis.
This issue can impact how a child experiences school and life in general.
Sensory processing issues are divided into two primary categories, depending on how they show up. Some children will experience a mix of these two types. Let’s take a closer look at how sensory challenges can manifest differently in these two groups—
Some children are extremely sensitive to sensory stimulation. This hypersensitivity can lead to sensory avoidance behaviors in the children who experience it. For these kids, normal sensations and input are heightened to the point of system overload.
Children who are hypersensitive to sensory input may experience sensory overload when they encounter certain sounds, textures, sights, and tastes. They may feel overwhelmed and even become visibly upset in response to encountering certain sensory stimuli.
In order to protect and shield their system from overload, these children may avoid places, things, and experiences that might be triggering to their senses.
This avoidance may limit their engagement and participation in life experiences, and can certainly impact their performance in school (as schools tend to be highly stimulating environments to the senses).
These children may experience sensory overload triggers from things like—
Flickering or bright lights
Tags in their clothing
The texture of certain foods
Loud noises in their environment
Children who experience hypersensitivity may avoid wearing clothing they find itchy or uncomfortable, may react strongly to loud noises, may decline to try new foods and have a limited number of foods they’ll agree to eat. They may also avoid close contact with others, such as hugging or even being touched.
These children may also experience issues relating to their awareness of where their body is in space (also known as proprioception). This can impact their confidence in trying new physical activities and learning new skills.
In contrast, children who are hyposensitive to sensory input experience a different array of challenges.
These children may constantly seek out sensory stimulation, in order to get the level of input they need. These undersenitive children may be perpetually in motion, or may need to constantly touch and manipulate objects. They may also have a high tolerance for pain, or be unintentionally rough with their playmates.
These sensory seeking behaviors may show up as a need for constant movement, fidgeting, bumping into objects and people (seeming clumsy or uncoordinated), and the need to touch everything around them. These children may even present as distracted or anxious.
These issues can also often co-occur in the children who experience them. For example—a child with both hyper and hyposensitivity may avoid certain sensory experiences and situations, yet actively seek others out.
As a parent, we know you’re an expert on your child. That’s why we value the information you can provide us to shed light on your child’s unique triggers and behaviors. Sensory issues are often misunderstood—but they’re very real and can be very distressing to the children (and families) who experience them.
If you believe your child is experiencing sensory processing issues, there is help available for you. Let’s dive into how these issues are assessed and treated in school-aged children.
How are sensory processing issues in children treated?
While sensory processing issues used to be classified as a disorder—this is no longer the case. Typically, sensory processing issues can be identified by looking at a child’s behavior, as they tend to be easily observable.
Your child’s sensory processing issues can be further identified and confirmed by professionals like—
Your child’s pediatrician
Your school’s evaluation specialist
An Occupational Therapist
You can also be a huge help to your child’s therapy team, by providing us with specifics about your child’s behaviors related to sensory input. This information can help us develop a clear picture of your child’s needs. We can use this knowledge to create a dynamic, individualized therapy plan to target your child’s unique needs.
At The Loop, our Occupational Therapists are highly skilled at identifying and treating children with a wide range of sensory processing issues. Our OTs can work with your child to first assess the nature and severity of their sensory issues, as well as work to identify your child’s triggers for either sensory avoidance or sensory seeking behaviors.
Your OT will create a treatment plan based around your child’s individual needs, taking into account their unique strengths and weaknesses, as well as their preferences and dislikes. Our treatment plans are always designed especially for each child and family we serve.
In general, your child’s therapy team will work to help them cope with any sensory challenges they face and work to help improve their sensory integration skills. The goal is to enhance your child’s ability to recognize and regulate their sensory experiences and inputs, so they can feel more confident and in control in these situations.
We’ll also likely address your child’s thoughts and feelings about their issues, and work to improve their awareness and management of their emotions around their sensory experiences.
In addition to a robust therapy plan from your Loop therapy team, your child may also benefit from modifications and accommodations made in the classroom setting—designed to help them succeed in this important learning environment.
Your OT will work with your child’s teacher to assess and implement any necessary accommodations to promote your child’s success. Some common classroom adjustments that can be made to help kids with sensory integration issues succeed include things like—
Creating private work spaces to reduce sensory input
Building in “brain breaks” and movement opportunities during the day
Using adaptive equipment like alternative seating, pencil grips, resistance bands, wiggle boards, or weighted items (like lap pads, blankets, or vests)
Providing headphones or earplugs to reduce unnecessary auditory input
Training in using nonverbal signals to alert teachers when feeling overwhelmed
Providing advance warning of possible sensory triggers when able (like loud sounds)
Establishing a consistent daily routine your child can rely on
Offering multimodal cues and items, like visual schedules
Allowing your child to use items like fidget spinners, gum, etc to provide necessary sensory stimulation
Allowing your child to use assistive devices (like tablets, talk-to-text, or sticky notes)
With this list, it’s easy to see the many adaptations that can be made to help your child with sensory processing issues succeed in the school setting. Your OT will work closely with your child, you, their teacher, and any other educational professionals to ensure necessary modifications are made to your child’s learning environment to support them.
It’s important for everyone interacting with your child to remember: kids with sensory integration issues are not trying to be “difficult”—they are simply trying to cope with a sensory system that is arranged differently. When provided with the appropriate modifications and supports—your child can learn to manage their issues effectively and thrive.
At The Loop, it’s our honor to help children cope with sensory processing issues and reach their fullest potential. We believe that quality education should be available to all children—and we’ll make sure your child has access to the school experience they deserve.
The Loop collaborates with Chicago-area private schools in an exclusive partnership—offering the highest quality, customized in-school therapy services to the families we serve. If you’re interested in learning more about what our top-tier, individualized therapy can do for your family—reach out! You can contact us via our website, catch up with us on social media by following @TheLoopSLL on your favorite platform, or email us with questions at email@example.com
P.S. Did you know—We go above and beyond our stellar speech, language, and occupational therapy services to offer a wide array of learning support services? The Loop also proudly provides executive function coaching, learning remediation, and educational consultancy and advocacy services.