Sensory Processing Issues happen when the body has problems taking in information from the senses. This may be a neurological disorder which happens when the brain fails to receive the sensory messages or process them appropriately.
If a child has ‘Sensory Issues’ he may react in an extreme way or abnormally to a normal situation. So for example, a bus driving past will not cause an adverse reaction to most, but for a child with hypersensitive hearing it may sound like a volcano and they may scream as it is painful for their ears.
The 5 senses that we are all familiar with are vision, hearing, smell, touch and taste. These are what I call out ‘outside’ senses – they gather information outside of the body and go to the brain for processing. We also have 3 ‘inside’ senses: proprioception, which is being aware of your body and pressure you apply to things; vestibular balance helps you stay upright and prevents you from becoming dizzy or disorientated; and interoception is your internal digestion system.
Research tells us that around 1 in 20 children have some degree of ‘Sensory Processing Issues’ and some believe it may be as high as 1 in 6. Some symptoms seen are children
- covering their ears (sounds are too loud)
- complaints of light being too bright and hurting the eyes
- strong smells making them sick
- if their touch sense is over reactive they will complain of tags feeling uncomfortable or haircuts being painful!
Some children have sensory issues which leave them ‘sloth like’ or seemingy ‘disengaged’. They may appear to slouch over a desk in school and not listening. This is what may present as ‘low arousal’ child.
Many children have ‘sensory seeking issues’ where they bite their sleeves or bottles, lick things, fidget/moce/squirm excessivly and seem to not be able to help it- in fact if they are asked to stop- they cannot concentrate.
It is really important to note that many children and adults have sensory quirks but they do not cause extreme anxiety or do not impact negatively on everyday function. If a child has sensory issues that cause excessive disruption to themselves, their home or classroom- then the child should be assessed by an Occupational Therapist to assess for ‘Sensory Processing Disorder’. We usually see a cluster of ‘sensory problems’ in SPD (Sensory Processing Disorder) and they make life difficult for the child and cause the child to have ‘meltdowns’ or anxiety.
About 90% of children with autism have sensory problems but children with other conditions (such as Down Syndrome) may present with sensory issues too. SPD can be a stand-alone condition.
Our sensory systems, when working properly, are wonderful things. Warm bright sunshine, the feeling of sand in our toes, eating ice cream and listening to great music can be so pleasurable. A funfair merry-go-round or even a rollercoaster can be such fun!
Normally, the sensory systems gather information from the environment and send messages to the brain to process it so we can use that information to complete everyday tasks. All of the senses work smoothly and clearly together without much conscious thought from ourselves.
For children with ‘sensory processing issues’ there may well be a ‘traffic jam’ or ‘muddled messages’ coming to and from the brain and even the simplest of activities – writing, catching a ball, using a knife and fork, even sitting down on a chair- can become a really difficult job that needs a HUGE amount of effort and concentration.
ALWAYS REMEMBER: these children have to concentrate up to 10 times harder- and WORK 10 times harder than the average child to make even the simplest of tasks happen whether they have sensory issues or both SPD plus another condition (such as dyspraxia-DCD).