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Children and young people experiencing sensory processing needs

We aim to help parents, carers, school staff and young people to have a better understanding of sensory processing and how this impacts on everyday life. We provide information and advice on how to adapt activities and the environment to support children’s sensory need, Sensory Awareness - Essex Schools InfoLink.

Sensory processing issues are difficulties with organizing and responding to information that comes in through the senses. Children may be oversensitive to sensory input, undersensitive, or both. When our senses are integrated correctly, we are able to respond appropriately to the sensation.

Often, Children with sensory processing issues are oversensitive. They try to avoid sensations they find intolerable. But some children also seek more sensory input, not less. They may want to touch things and feel physical contact and pressure. They may also be undersensitive to pain and have an unusually high tolerance for it. That’s why they may prefer playing rough and not understand if they’re hurting someone.

Children’s sensory systems pick up information from their surroundings and these send information to the nervous system. The nervous system processes this information and generates a response or reaction to what is happening around the child.

Sensory experiences can help children understand their environments and support them to feel safe and secure. A well-developed sensory system is essential for both cognitive and social intelligence and is therefore required for children to become successful learners.

Sensory processing is a subconscious neurological process that occurs in every person throughout all stages of their lives. For most people this develops during ordinary childhood activities. When we develop good sensory processing skills, we can integrate information automatically and efficiently. For some people, sensory processing does not develop as efficiently as it should which makes it difficult to generate an appropriate response to environments and everyday situations. This can affect daily living, education, and social interactions; it can also result in a wide range of confusing and sometimes negative behaviours.

Sensory issues impede children from readily seeking out experiences that allow them to learn about themselves and their physical environment. They may have difficulty receiving and responding to information from their senses. Children with sensory processing difficulties may experience difficulties figuring out what is going on inside and outside of their bodies. They may have an aversion to anything that triggers their senses, such as light, sound, touch, taste, or smell.

A Child's View of Sensory Processing - YouTube

Many of these behaviours are not uncommon, but sometimes they can be persistent and impact on quality of life:

Running out of busy places when there are lots of visuals and/or sounds present.

This may be a child who cannot cope with processing so many different things at one time.

Seeking lots of physical movement through the day.

This may be a child who needs more information into their muscle and movement systems, to tell them where they are in space.

Sensitivity to light touch.

Your child may be very sensitive to unexpected or light touch and have an anxious response to it.

Seeking heavy touch and hugs.

Your child may seek lots of heavy touch, through hugs for example, to get more input to their touch system. This can be calming for them.

Difficulty with posture and co-ordination.

This may represent a child whose muscle and movement systems are not as efficient.

Being overloaded by visual or sound input.

This may affect their ability to concentrate.

Sensory avoiding

Children who are sensory avoiding may react to a wide range of triggers. These can include loud sounds, uncomfortable clothing, crowded spaces, or certain food smells or textures, among others. Whatever the trigger, the reaction can sometimes be extreme.

Sensory overload can lead to sensory meltdowns. These are very different from tantrums because they’re out of the child’s control.

Children may present with different types of sensory difficulties. If their sensory needs are not supported effectively this can lead to avoidance, withdrawal, inattention, and behaviour that challenges. Sensory difficulties may include:

  • Dislike of touch / texture experiences, e.g. messy play, physical contact.
  • Dislike of loud sudden noises.
  • Dislike of bright lights.
  • Avoidance of playground equipment (e.g. swings and slides).
  • Avoidance of certain foods and food texture, colours, temperatures, etc.
  • Dislike or avoidance of certain smells.

These outsized reactions may cause:

  • A low pain threshold.
  • Clumsy, uncoordinated movements.
  • Withdrawal from activities.
  • Discomfort and confusion.
  • Fleeing without regard to safety.
  • Covering of eyes or ears frequently.
  • Picky food preferences.

These children can be observed to be ‘avoiding’ activities and experiences. They will have trouble suppressing the information that they receive from everyday activities and may feel overloaded, which can cause distress (observed in their behaviour).

  • Appear to have no fear or does not feel pain.
  • Seeks movement or touch opportunities (fidgets, rocks, jumps, leans on peers, runs around).
  • Mouths or chews things.
  • Poor attention / unresponsive to the environment or people around them.
  • Distractible / over-excited.
  • Lack of energy.

These reactions may cause:

  • A high pain threshold.
  • Bumping into walls.
  • Touching things.
  • Putting things into their mouth.
  • Giving bear hugs.
  • Crashing into other people or things.

These children crave interaction with the world around them; they may interact and engage more with their surroundings to gain sensory feedback. This may make them appear hyperactive when they may simply be trying to make their senses more engaged. These children ‘need’ this feedback so that they can feel ‘just right’. Alternatively, these children may lose focus and appear inattentive because they are

not receiving enough input to sustain their involvement and engagement in activities and their environment. These difficulties may also be displayed through their behaviour.

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