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Child Sensory Issues – What is Normal, What Isn’t and How to Get Help?

child sensory issuesThey say it’s “sensory”. Too often, people throw that term around when describing kids’ behavior – but do they really know what that means? My kid WON’T sit still. She could be on that swing ALL DAY. He covers his ears as soon as we walk into the classroom. She HATES to get messy. He fights the bath. Does my kid have sensory issues? 

Sensory Integration, Sensory Processing Disorder, Sensory Dysfunction.

These terms are all used to refer to “sensory issues”. Child sensory issues can affect many children, maybe yours?

We ALL have some of these sensory issues, even as fully-functioning adults who contribute to society.

Some of us twirl our hair, chew gum, shake our leg – all to keep focused, engaged, regulated. My friend wears those weird water shoes at the beach because she can’t stand the feel of sand on her feet. Personally, I am barefoot as much as possible. My mother can’t ride in the backseat of a car, or read on an airplane, because she gets motion sickness. Whereas my Dad was such a thrill seeker that he was first in the roller coaster line. My husband gags at the thought of the yogurt, and I’m sure that my oldest son inherited his texture aversion. Some of us might need a hot shower to wake up in the morning, or a warm bath to wind down at night. Others thrive on lifting weights, or the forward movement of cycling, or the inverted positions in yoga to feed the body’s sensory systems so that we get what we need.

Lots of this is normal.

Yes, it’s typical for kids to work through these sensory differences as well. This is how their little nervous systems learn about themselves and their relationship to the environment. Kids seek what they need – spinning, hanging upside down, rolling down hills, diving into the sand, smearing spaghetti sauce all over their bodies, biting that squishy ball – just to see what it feels like. This is normal sensory development.

Some of it is not.

Yes, there are those ends of the sensory ‘spectrum’ that are not typical. Kids with diagnoses of attention deficit and autism often struggle with sensory issues. But some kids do not fall into those categories and still struggle so much that they can’t function too well in the world. Some can’t tolerate movement to get a diaper changed, go into public restrooms, or climb on playground equipment. Others can’t get dressed when the seasons change, accept a toothbrush in their mouth, or the sensation of grass between their toes. There are a few who have a complete meltdown with the lawnmower going or the blender whirring. It’s that kid that can’t stop moving long enough to sit and focus at school.

Basically, one can over/under respond to a certain type of sensory input. You can have tactile sensitivity and hate getting your hands messy. One could be auditory defensive to sounds of the toilet flushing. Yet, another could be a movement seeker and run through life at full tilt. Still some break pencils because the brain tells the hands to push down too hard on the lead. Some kids struggle with their muscles and joints so much that they just can’t keep their bodies upright to sit in a chair for more than a few minutes. Kids can present with difficulties in all areas, with such varying degrees, which can seem to change from day to day. This is the hardest part to understand, to explain, to get a handle on. Sensory processing can be a moving target as kids grow up and go through life.

There is help.

Talk to your pediatrician about things and get a referral. There are things you can do to support child sensory issues. There are resources depending on the child’s age. Here in New Hampshire, there are Early Supports and Services for kids under three, preschool services through your town, and some private health insurances have assistance. Occupational therapists are trained to diagnose and treat sensory processing disorder: does your child need one?

In the meantime, here are some other resources if you want to read up. I share these with parents of the children that I work with. While there are many great books and websites, these are my top recommendations.

Websites:

  1. Web MD Sensory Processing Disorder
  2. Star Institute for SPD

Books:

  1. Raising a Sensory Smart Child
  2. Sensory Processing 101
  3. Sensational Kids

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