Sensory Overload! Understanding Sensory Sensitivity in Kids

Guest Blogger Jana Maich, Occupational Therapist

In my previous blog, “Busy Bodies, Is It Sensory Seeking,” I wrote about the sensory seeking child. To quickly re-cap, sensory seekers are always on the move, searching for sensory input in order to meet their high sensory thresholds. On the other end of the spectrum is the sensory defensive child. Unlike sensory seekers who have high thresholds for sensory input, sensory sensitive children have very low sensory thresholds. Due to these low thresholds, they experience sensory input much more intensely or notice sensory input much more often than their peers. This means that sensory input that may not bother you and I (for example the feel of jeans, brushing our teeth, or the sound of an alarm going off) may be very aversive, distracting, threatening, or even painful for that child.

Sensory sensitive children can respond to their low sensory thresholds in couple of ways. For some children, they may actively avoid sensory input in an attempt to avoid meeting their threshold. They may set strict rituals and routines to avoid unfamiliar sensory input which can be seen as threatening, engage in disruptive behaviours, or escape the situation in an attempt to avoid feeling the pain or discomfort caused by some sensations.

Other children may demonstrate less active attempts to avoid sensory input. Although these children do not actively avoid the situation, they are constantly bombarded with sensory input as they notice it much more than others. They may appear distracted, hyperactive, or have difficulty focusing as their attention is constantly being diverted to a new sensory stimulus in the environment.

Sensory sensitivity is not to be confused with normal selectivity of children. For example, it is not uncommon for a child to dislike going to the dentist or to cover their ears in a noisy environment. Ask yourself: How much is the sensitivity negatively impacting my child’s daily routine and functioning? Is my child unwilling or unable to participate in daily routines and activities due to avoidance or sensitivity to sensory information?

As mentioned in the last blog, if you are concerned that sensory sensitivity may be a problem for your child, an occupational therapy assessment can help determine the underlying causes and potential solutions. Therapy sessions for sensory sensitivity may focus on specific exercises and techniques designed to desensitize your child and support increased tolerance for sensory input. Additionally, occupational therapists can offer simple strategies and/or modifications to daily routines that enable your child to better accept difficult sensations (e.g. hair washing, eating certain foods, or tooth brushing). Strategies can also be recommended to improve your child’s ability to filter out extraneous sensations in order to promote increased attention and focus. As always, all strategies would be tailored to meet your child’s specific needs, modeled, and modified as needed.

If you are concerned that your child may be experiencing sensory sensitivity, and you would like some support and guidance to understand or reduce those behaviors, try occupational therapy.

Dunn, W. (2002). Infant/Toddler Sensory Profile: User’s Manual. San Antonio: The Psychological Corporation.

Dunn, W. (1997). The impact of sensory processing abilities on the daily lives of young children and their families: a conceptual model. Infants and Young Children, 9(4), 23-35