Generally, people are familiar with only five senses: vision, hearing, taste, touch, and smell. However, there are also two less commonly discussed senses. These are proprioception, or an awareness of one’s own body parts, and the vestibular sense, which involves balance, movement, and coordination. Children with sensory processing issues may have abnormal responses to any of these senses.
Although the term “sensory processing issues” is often exclusively associated with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), many people do not realize that both sensory processing issues and other symptoms that characterize ASD can be caused by hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy (HIE). Because HIE often leads to cerebral palsy (CP), it is also common for children with CP to have sensory processing issues.
Types and Signs of Sensory Processing Issues
There are two main types of sensory processing issues: hypersensitivity and hyposensitivity.
Children who are hypersensitive become easily overwhelmed by sensory stimulation and may:
- Be bothered by loud noises, bright lights, scratchy or form-fitting clothing, or physical contact (especially unexpected touch)
- Have a tendency to become distracted by things others barely notice
- Struggle to understand the position of their bodies in relation to other objects or people
- Move clumsily and bump into things
- Fail to understand the amount of force they’re applying (e.g. when trying to erase something, they may unintentionally rip the paper)
Children who are hyposensitive tend to crave more stimulation, and may:
- Frequently touch objects and other people (they may not understand personal space)
- Be unable to sit still, and enjoy jumping, spinning, and crashing into things
- Enjoy squeezing sensations like strong hugs
- Have a very high pain tolerance
It is important to note that hyper- and hyposensitivity are not mutually exclusive; many children with sensory processing issues experience both.
Management of Sensory Processing Issues
Many children with sensory processing issues participate in occupational therapy, which often includes sensory integration therapy. These treatments can help children avoid becoming overwhelmed by sensory stimulation, and better cope with distressing situations. It may also help children focus and improve certain daily skills.
Sensory processing issues alone are technically not covered by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which is the federal law that mandates children with disabilities receive special education services at school. However, sensory processing issues are often associated with other disabilities that do qualify; if your child shows signs of sensory processing issues, it may be wise to request a school evaluation. Children who qualify for special education may receive occupational therapy as part of their individualized education programs (IEPs). They may also be eligible for free occupational therapy with a Section 504 plan: the eligibility requirements for this are not as restrictive. In addition to occupational therapy, children with IEPs or Section 504 plans may receive certain accommodations and modifications at school to help maximize their learning potential.
Sensory processing issues can pose a number of challenges to affected children and their families. Management may be especially difficult when sensory problems co-occur with other conditions or disorders. However, with the right resources, children with sensory processing issues can thrive. The following pages may be of interest:
Child Mind Institute: Sensory Processing FAQ
Understood.org: Understanding Sensory Processing Issues
Science News: Children exposed to complications at birth at risk of autism, study finds
American Journal of Perinatology: Association of Perinatal Risk Factors with Autism Spectrum Disorder