Is your child:
Parents often notice sensory sensitivities at a young age. Some children refuse almost all foods based on smell or texture. Other children seem not to notice when they need to urinate or have a bowel movement. Some children cannot be in loud places or avoid messy activities that other children seem to love.
Every child is different. Some children are pickier eaters than others. Some children prefer to stay neat and clean rather than being willing to try messy foods. Some children love noise, activity, new sights and smells.
Sensory sensitivities become an issue when day-to-day life is significantly impacted. If a simple adaptation can be made, these sensory problems may not require supports from a professional.
Examples of common sensory issues are as follows:
Parents generally bring these concerns to the pediatrician and are often met with a “wait and see” suggestion. Certainly, it is important not to jump to a hasty conclusion. On the other hand, if significant sensory differences are having an impact on your child’s life, it can be helpful to take a careful look at your child’s growth and development.
Sensorimotor development: Well-known developmental psychologist Jean Piaget offered a theory of child development that consists of stages a child works through from birth to adulthood. The stage proposed to span from 6 months to 2 years old is called the sensorimotor stage. This time in development is thought to be crucial for sensory and motor development.
Typical development: Piaget said infants build knowledge of the world through trial and error. They learn as they assimilate information and accommodate their developing schemas, which means that children learn and expand on knowledge. For example, they begin to categorize things they see, hear, touch, taste and feel. Dogs are soft with a wagging tail, and the kitchen stove is hot. Children use motor and sensory systems to explore the world from this young age, and this process of discovery aids young brains in developing.
Sensory processing problems: Challenges with sensory processing are often referred to by occupational therapists or teachers as having Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) or Sensory Integration Disorder. These terms refer to challenges within the sensory system that lead to under or over sensitivities and impact sight, sound, smell, taste, and texture. As you may imagine, differences in your sensory processing can have a major impact on day-to-day life. Certain stimuli may not be well tolerated or may not be noticed at all depending on over or under sensitivity.
Sensory Processing Disorder: The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Medical Association encourage parents and practitioners to be cautious with such terms as SPD. The reason for this caution is a body of medical research suggesting that sensory processing challenges may be symptoms of several different recognized medical conditions. We do not have sufficient evidence in the research to suggest that sensory processing challenges occur alone as a “disorder” .
For this reason, the medical community urges treatment of sensory sensitivities to be a part of a comprehensive treatment plan for a child. Your child cannot be medically diagnosed with Sensory Integration Disorder, but he or she may benefit from treatment for sensory symptoms as well as treatment for other symptoms that are having an impact on day-to-day life.
Disabilities with sensory symptoms: A number of neurodevelopmental disorders, motor and anxiety disorders may include sensory processing differences as potential symptoms. For example, sensory processing differences are one symptom of an Autism Spectrum Disorder. Children with ADHD often have differences in sensory processing, as do those with Developmental Coordination Disorder (a disorder of motor coordination) and those with a variety of childhood anxiety disorders. Research suggests that cognitively gifted children may have greater sensory sensitivities (and many of these children run a bit anxious as well).
Behavior problem or sensory need? It is important to look at sensory processing in context. Sensitivity to noise may lead a child to avoid the cafeteria or auditorium and to cling to parents at the farmer’s market. This same sensitivity is not the reason a child cannot sit still or the reason for hitting a younger brother every time he cries.
Although sensory problems may be the source of irritation or frustration, behavior problems are not explained or excused by such sensory sensitivities. Rather, your child may be struggling due to another disability or behavior disorder. Occupational therapy alone can be very successful in treating sensory sensitivities, but it will not directly treat behavior, inattention or anxiety.
An outpatient clinic or hospital setting with a multidisciplinary team may work on emotional and behavior symptoms and could include a home-support component. These teams generally include occupational therapists and behavior therapists, speech therapists, and psychologists.
The authors of this site feel it is important to mention this team approach because we see, firsthand, parents who have paid out of pocket for 5 years of occupational therapy and wonder why their child is still throwing apples at their heads in the kitchen if he’s told “no.”
If your child has significant sensory challenges, a disability may be present.
Consider a comprehensive evaluation. Competent specialists recommend a neuropsychological evaluation to determine the best course of treatment.
Pursue only evidence-based treatments. A comprehensive treatment plan may include some combination of occupational therapy, physical therapy, behavioral therapy, play therapy, language therapy, tutoring, school-based supports, social groups, or other therapies. Understanding your child’s profile in its entirety can help you to prioritize treatment and to look for supports that are research-based. Many treatments that may be suggested to you might not have evidence to support their use in treating children.
For Autism Spectrum Disorder, more than any other diagnosis, many treatments are suggested that may not have merit. You can use a trusted website to check out a treatment and to see whether it has met the standard set for research-based, effective treatment. See the Association for Science in Autism Treatment for more information on evidence-based treatments for autism. http://www.asatonline.org
Try these strategies at home for your sensitive child:
Home suggestions for the child who is very sensitive
“The program allows a child to interact with food in a playful, non-stressful way, beginning with the ability to tolerate the food in the room and in front of him/her; then moving on to touching, kissing, and eventually tasting and eating foods” .
Introduction of foods follows the following hierarchy:
Sensitivity to light and sound
If your child is struggling with a similar problem, not directly addressed in this section, see the list below for links to information about other related symptom areas.
Children who have significant problems in this area may have any of the following potential disabilities. *Note, this does not serve as a diagnosis in any way. See ‘Where to Go for Help’ section for professionals who can diagnose or provide a referral.
If your child is struggling with this symptom to the point that it is getting in the way of his learning, relationships, or happiness, the following professionals could help; they may offer diagnosis, treatment, or both.
These professionals may recommend or administer the following tests for this symptom:
 American Academy of Pediatrics (2012). Sensory Integration Therapies for Children With Developmental and Behavioral Disorders
SECTION ON COMPLEMENTARY AND INTEGRATIVE MEDICINE, COUNCIL ON CHILDREN WITH DISABILITIES. Pediatrics; 129: 1186-1189. http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/pediatrics/129/6/1186.full.pdf
 Association for Science in Autism Treatment:
 Toomey, Kay (Retrieved 2017). Sequential Oral Sensory approach to feeding.
And scholarly article can be found: http://sosapproach-conferences.com/resources/articles/
 Wong, Connie, et al (2015). Evidence-Based Practices for Children, Youth, and Young Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Comprehensive Review.
Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. http://fpg.unc.edu/sites/fpg.unc.edu/files/resources/reports-and-policy-briefs/2014-EBP-Report.pdf
For Sensory Processing Related Eating Challenges:
 Children’s Hospital of Colorado- Swallowing
Sensory Processing Supports-
 Star Institute Occupational Therapy, Denver
 Kay A. Toomey PhD
Individual Practitioner, Feeding Specialist
 This parent blog has many resources including the feeding hierarchy: http://singingthroughtherain.net
Description: Series of a Little Boy, Expressions – Something Stinks, Holding his Nose
Stock Photo ID: #434567794 (Shutterstock)
Previously Licensed on: May 13, 2017
Stylized by Katie Harwood exclusively for CLEAR Child Psychology