Sensory integration affects kids and adults alike. It’s also a topic that’s dear to my heart. A firetruck storms by, blaring its siren, and my hands want to automatically cover my sensitive ears. The high-pitched sound threatens my equilibrium as much as it physically hurts my eardrums. Smells are also a constant reminder of how sensitive my nervous system is. The intensity of a particular scent often seems to bother no one but me. A gentle touch on my leg or my shoulder is aggravating at best, while a firm touch is incredibly grounding and soothing. Crowds drain me. I could go on and on. My issues do not affect my ability to function, however, if they did it would be considered a disorder. Do any of these responses to stimuli sound familiar to you? Many parents observe that their children process the world differently, but they are not sure where to go from there. So, how can you recognize sensory integration issues in your kids?
How to Recognize Sensory Integration Challenges:
- Look for patterns–kids generally reveal their sensory processing issues when the situation is ideal–meaning, you need the perfect storm. For example, your child is tired ( this lowers his threshold for stress), you drag him to the supermarket on a Friday evening (busiest time), the store is noisy (auditory input is too loud), people are too close and pushing (tactile and visual input overload), the lights are too bright (stressful visual input), all ending in your child having a meltdown. Or your child bursts into tears when the teacher addresses him, but only when the classroom is exceptionally noisy.
- Keep a journal–if you start to notice that your child does well in a particular environment, and not so well in others, write it all down. For example, kids with sensory processing difficulties sometimes do fine with one friend, but not so well in groups. This is because there are too many factors that cannot be controlled in a group setting. Nutritional intake is another item to pay attention to and document. Maybe your child will only eat crunchy foods, but refuses creamy ones. In addition, children with sensory issues often have difficulties with bathing. Perhaps bath time is a struggle when you wash his hair, but fine when you don’t. Or maybe, your child screams when you use liquid soap, but seems fine when you give him a bar of soap to clean himself with. Writing it all down will help you analyze his patterns, his triggers, and his coping mechanisms. It’s also great information to have if you decide to look for help from an occupational therapist trained in sensory integration.
- Look at the way your child reacts to food–we all have likes and dislikes when it comes to foods. Kids with sensory processing challenges, however, can be very rigid when it comes to the texture, temperature, and smell. Often touching a non-preferred food or even looking at it, will provoke a gag-reflex, tantrum or refusal to eat. The child might become upset with gravy or yogurt on his hands, to the point where he cannot focus on anything else. Beverages can also be problematic for some children, especially milk, juice and soda. I have treated some children who would only eat foods of a certain shape, texture or color. So, make a list of your child’s favorite foods and non-preferred ones, and try to find some similarities. In addition, some children pocket their food in their mouths for hours, while others still drool a lot (a possible sign of poor oral sensory awareness). A feeding evaluation with a trained occupational therapist might be very helpful.
- Observe your child’s reactions to swinging–swinging is a tool used in sensory integration therapy. It is used very cautiously, however. A therapist not only looks at the child’s reactions to the task, but also monitors vital signs and visual/pupil changes. For a child with sensory integration issues, swinging can be a wonderful way to regulate his body and brain processing, or it can be an incredibly scary experience. I have seen many parents try to force swinging on their child, in and out of the clinic. I advise against it. With the right approach, a child can be coaxed into tolerating swinging and the benefits can help his sensory processing. Any sign that your child reacts strongly to swinging, should be duly noted. Monitor your child’s reaction closely and discuss it with your child’s medical team.
- Look at your child’s muscle tone, clumsiness and strength–kids who have sensory issues are often either low tone (droopy, poor posture) or high tone (overly muscular). A very common position for these kids is sitting in W–the child sits with his knees bent and each leg spread in a W on each side of him. They usually have very poor core muscle control. Some of them have a slack jaw, and stare at things with an open mouth. They hold pencils too tightly or too lightly. My son, for example, pressed so hard on the paper that his homework became permanently engraved on our dining room table. This could indicate that your child is looking for increased tactile and proprioceptive (receptors in your joints that register pressure) input. Does your child seem to break toys easily? Often, children who are not aware of their own strength will appear to be very destructive. Also, look for clumsiness. Children who seem to have poor balance, fall a lot, or get hurt more than what would be considered reasonable, often have sensory processing difficulties.
This list is a good starting point when trying to assess if your child is having sensory processing issues. There are of course more items you could look at, such as reactions to sounds, lights, visual difficulties, gaze avoidance, poor motor control, fear of heights, aversion to certain fabric or textures, poor emotional regulation, inability to organize his thoughts or focus, sleep patterns, constant daydreaming or fidgeting, frequent tantrums and social challenges.
I initially discussed this fascinating topic in my article Sensory Integration Explained. I would recommend a full evaluation with an occupational therapist specializing in sensory integration as the best way to assess whether your child is having a hard time processing his senses. Sensory integration therapy is very effective, and can help sensory kids gain the coping skills and the confidence they need to thrive in their lives.