How To Support Your Children With Their Sensory Challenges

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Nearly everyone can identify some sort of sensory experience that makes them uncomfortable. Maybe you balk at the gooshy texture of an avocado or the sensation of stiff fabric against your skin. Maybe writing with a pencil makes your skin crawl. Or maybe bright lights make your head spin.

According to Mariana Fraga, MEd, a board certified and licensed behavior analyst at Henry Ford Health, sensory challenges are remarkably common. "We all have sensory preferences. But unlike adults, children cannot communicate their sensory needs," she says. Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are especially vulnerable since they tend to have sensory hypersensitivity and may also struggle to communicate.

What Are Sensory Processing Issues?

Sensory processing challenges are a set of behaviors that happen when kids have trouble processing information from their senses. They typically show up during the toddler years when kids have difficulty responding appropriately to environmental stimuli.

Some kids may cover their ears when they hear loud noises or tense up with exposure to bright lights. Or they may scream when their face gets wet. These behaviors reflect a brain that's overloaded by stimuli, creating a sense of gridlock in a child's head.

Parents' first clue that something is amiss is often the child's outsized reaction to a simple shift in sensory stimulation. Kids might refuse certain foods or throw tantrums when asked to put on their shoes or a specific item of clothing. Some children become angry and aggressive. Others flee to avoid certain situations. "When sensory challenges are severe, parents may even begin altering their lives, adjusting their activities and behaviors to avoid triggering the child," says Tisa Johnson, M.D., a pediatrician at Henry Ford Health.

In some cases, when sensory challenges happen frequently or for extended periods of time, they can interfere with socialization, learning and development.

Identifying Sensory Processing Issues

Dr. Johnson is quick to point out that sensory challenges include both sensory seeking and sensory avoidant behaviors:

Sensory seeking behaviors include:

  • Licking nonfood objects
  • Rocking
  • Becoming overly affectionate

Sensory avoidant behaviors include:

  • Covering ears in response to loud noises
  • Shutting down in crowds
  • Throwing tantrums when you try to get them dressed

Of course, it's important to note that children may be both sensory seekers and sensory avoiders. The key is to ensure you're addressing their needs for both sensory experiences and stillness.

Is There A Link Between Sensory Processing Issues And Autism?

Sensory processing problems are often linked with ASD because many kids on the spectrum have sensory challenges. But it's important to remember that sensory issues may also affect kids who are not on the spectrum, particularly those who have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and developmental delays.

"Nearly everyone has some degree of sensory seeking or sensory avoiding behaviors," says Fraga. "If the child's sensory issues restrict your ability to engage in your 'normal' everyday activities, it's important to seek professional help."

Managing Sensory Overload

If your child is struggling with sensory challenges, an occupational therapist, psychologist or pediatrician can diagnose the problem (if there is one), and help the child learn how to manage sensory overload.

"Regardless of whether your child has autism or a sensory issue, you need to teach your child to live in a world of sensory input," says Dr. Johnson. "Unfortunately, parents and teachers often reinforce sensory issues by accommodating the child in avoiding or seeking sensory input."

A better approach: Systematically expose the child to sensory input — at a tolerable level. So if a child has trouble with loud noises, an occupational therapist might start by taking the child into a noisy classroom for just a few minutes. Over time, the therapist will extend the length of time the child stays in the classroom.

"We all have preferences for specific sensory input," says Dr. Johnson. "The key is making sure those preferences aren't too restrictive."

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To find a doctor or developmental specialist at Henry Ford, visit henryford.com or call 1-800-436-7936.

Mariana Fraga is a board-certified behavior analyst and manages the Henry Ford Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities.

Dr. Tisa Johnson-Hooper is a board-certified pediatrician and serves as the medical director of the Henry Ford Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities. She sees patients at Henry Ford Medical Center- New Center One in Detroit.

Categories: ParentWell