Does Your Child Get Angry, Upset or Easily Distracted? how to Recognise Sensory Processing Difficulties

What is sensory processing?

Sensory processing is the ability to interpret information through our sensory systems.  Difficulties with sensory processing can greatly impact upon a child’s attention and behaviour.  Despite what is commonly referenced, we actually have 7 sensory systems:

  • Tactile
  • Auditory
  • Visual
  • Taste
  • Smell
  • Vestibular (how we are moving)
  • Proprioceptive (how our body is positioned)

cheerful child with painted hands on white background

For each of the sensory systems we have an individual sensory threshold which is the limit for the amount of sensory input that we can tolerate.

Sensory sensitivity occurs when normal sensory input levels exceed a child’s threshold.  Many children in this category become easily overwhelmed or avoid sensory activities.  When they are exposed to sensory input that is beyond what they can tolerate a fight/flight/fright stress response can be triggered.

Conversely, sensory under-registration occurs when a child needs greater than normal levels of input to register.  Many children in this category tend to actively seek out additional sensory input.  If there is a mismatch between our sensory preferences and the environment performance can become unpredictable.

In the diagram below.  The green area shows the optimal range for a person with typical auditory processing.  The purple box shows the optimal range of a person with sensory sensitivity- noises that would typically be tolerable can elicit a stress response.

 sensory processing

 Signs your child might experience a sensory processing difficulty:

  • Cover their ears or become upset/agitate in response to loud noise
  • Become easily distracted/overwhelmed in busy environments
  • Avoid messy play
  • Hesitant to try new foods/very restricted diet
  • Bothered by clothing fabrics, seams in socks or wearing long sleeves
  • Dislike grooming tasks such as having hair brushed, washed or cut
  • Bump into or trip over things
  • Constantly moving/can’t sit still
  • Cautious on playground equipment
  • Aggressive behaviour
  • Tantrums/ meltdowns
  • Poor attention

Many children can display these behaviours at one stage or another, however if sensory difficulties are interrupting their daily routines or disrupting learning, then intervention from an Occupational Therapist can be helpful.

kate headshot

-Kate Kleinau, Occupational Therapist

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