Understanding Sensory Sensitivity
Some parents wonder if their child’s sensitivity to sensory input — such as loud noises or tactile experiences — indicates a problem with their child’s sensory processing. This month, we will share our understanding of the two primary reasons for how such sensitivities develop.
What is a Sensory Processing Sensitivity?
Many children have one or another sensitivity, and most children have preferences. A problem in the area of sensory processing is usually indicated when a child is either hyper- or hyposensitive to sensory input, such as sounds, tastes or tactile experiences. In most cases of children who have a sensory processing problem, the problem is in the direction of over- or hypersensitivity. For example, a child might be especially sensitive to loud noises and cover his ears to block out certain sounds. This may also occur when the child anticipates certain sounds.
What Causes Sensory Sensitivity?
In our experience with young children, there are two primary scenarios related to sensory sensitivities: those involving children with broader neurodevelopmental syndromes, such as autism spectrum disorder; and those involving children who seem to be otherwise developing neuro-typically.
For the child who has some biological factors at play in his or her development, such as an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis, it’s not uncommon for sensitivities to sensory input to be present in some form or another. These particular children typically fall into the category of having a sensory processing disorder. In other words, they have a neurological condition that makes them more sensitive to some forms of input.
Children without patterns of broader neurodevelopmental difficulties often have these sensitivities on the basis of psychological — or emotional — issues and the sensory sensitivities are symptoms. As symptoms, we understand the sensitivity, or response, to stimuli such as loud noises as a behavior or an attempt to protect oneself from feelings of heightened anxiety.
There are also children who fall somewhere in between these two categories. They may express some neurobiological factors in their development, but their sensitivities may be more on the side of a wish to shield input that makes them feel more anxious.
When under duress, children and adults alike can experience a heightened sensitivity to a variety of external stimuli. To illustrate this point, consider the scenario of watching a scary movie. If the viewer is on edge, frightened by the movie’s themes, and there is a sudden bang nearby, the sound is more likely to startle the viewer than another time when he or she is settled. The severity of the viewer’s reaction to the sound depends on how frightened he or she is already feeling.
In the case of children having a heightened sensitivity to input for psychological or emotional reasons, the sensitivity is often dependent upon similar factors. Is it only in certain situations that the child seems to be more protective of himself? Is the child more worried about surprising or alarming sounds when he is in a setting that causes him some degree of anxiety?
For example, in our classrooms, we’ve learned that one aspect of a group setting that some children struggle with is unpredictability. In a large group of children, there may be a number of surprising sounds such as squeals of excitement, cries of pain or shouts of one type or another. For a child who is uncomfortable jumping into a group setting, protection from these sounds may be the child’s best attempt to ward off worries about the group’s overall unpredictability. In this case, we understand the sensitivity as a symptom of a greater anxiety.
The best help or treatment for a child will depend on the nature of the sensitivity. In the case of a neurologically driven sensitivity, there are a number of treatments available for sensory integration and desensitization. When the sensitivity seems to be more on the side of a psychological response to how a child feels, help for the specific anxiety is often a more effective and meaningful way to intervene. Understanding the whole child and his or her development is key to understanding the nature of and, in turn, treatment for the sensitivity.
The Lucy Daniels Center is a nonprofit agency in Cary that promotes the emotional health and well-being of children and families. Visit lucydanielscenter.org to learn more.