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Understanding Sensory Processing: An Introduction for Parents

Updated: Jun 2

Sensory Play with Shaving Cream

As parents, understanding your child's behavior and developmental milestones is crucial. One often overlooked aspect of child development is sensory processing. But what is sensory processing, and why is it important for parents to understand?

Sensory processing refers to the way the nervous system receives, organizes, and responds to sensory input, including sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touch. This process helps us navigate the world around us and perform day-to-day activities with ease. However, when a child has sensory processing issues, they may struggle to process and respond to sensory information in a typical manner, leading to various challenges in daily life.

Understanding sensory processing and recognizing potential issues early can empower parents to provide the necessary support for their children, fostering their growth and well-being.

The Different Types of Sensory Processing Issues

Sensory processing issues can manifest in different ways, generally categorized into three main types: sensory modulation, sensory discrimination, and sensory-based motor disorders. Let's explore each one in detail:

Sensory Modulation Disorder (SMD)

Sensory Modulation Disorder involves difficulties in regulating responses to sensory stimuli. Children with SMD may be over-responsive or under-responsive to sensory input, or they may seek out sensory experiences excessively. For example:

  • Over-responsiveness: A child may be overly sensitive to loud noises, bright lights, or certain textures, leading to avoidance behaviors.

  • Under-responsiveness: A child may not notice sensory input that others typically respond to, such as not feeling pain or extreme temperatures.

  • Sensory seeking: A child may crave intense sensory experiences, such as spinning, crashing into objects, or touching everything.

Sensory Discrimination Disorder (SDD)

Sensory Discrimination Disorder is characterized by difficulties in distinguishing between different sensory stimuli. This can affect various senses, including vision, hearing, touch, and proprioception (the sense of body position). Children with SDD may struggle with tasks such as:

  • Differentiating between similar sounds or visual patterns.

  • Identifying objects by touch without looking.

  • Judging the amount of force needed for tasks like writing or buttoning a shirt.

Sensory-Based Motor Disorder (SBMD)

Sensory-Based Motor Disorder involves challenges in motor coordination and planning due to sensory processing issues. It includes two subtypes:

  • Dyspraxia: Difficulties with planning and executing new motor tasks, resulting in clumsiness or trouble with activities like riding a bike or using utensils.

  • Postural disorder: Challenges with maintaining posture and balance, leading to poor coordination and difficulties with activities like sitting upright or playing sports.

Recognizing Sensory Processing Issues in Children

Identifying sensory processing issues early can significantly impact a child's development and quality of life. Here are some common signs and symptoms parents can look out for:

Signs of Sensory Modulation Disorder

  • Overly sensitive to sensory stimuli, such as sounds, lights, or textures.

  • Avoidance of certain activities or environments due to sensory sensitivities.

  • Seeking excessive sensory input, like constant movement or touching objects.

  • Inconsistent responses to sensory input, such as fluctuating between over- and under-responsiveness.

Signs of Sensory Discrimination Disorder

  • Difficulty distinguishing between similar sounds, letters, or shapes.

  • Trouble identifying objects by touch alone.

  • Challenges with spatial awareness and judging distances.

  • Problems with fine motor skills, like handwriting or buttoning clothes.

Signs of Sensory-Based Motor Disorder

  • Clumsiness or frequent accidents during physical activities.

  • Difficulty learning new motor skills or performing coordinated movements.

  • Poor posture and balance.

  • Fatigue or frustration with physical tasks.

Impact on Daily Life

Sensory processing issues can significantly affect a child's daily life, influencing their behavior, learning, and social interactions. Here are some ways these issues can manifest:

Behavioral Impact

Children with sensory processing issues may exhibit behaviors such as:

  • Avoidance of certain activities or environments.

  • Meltdowns or tantrums when overwhelmed by sensory input.

  • Difficulty transitioning between activities or following routines.

  • Seeking intense sensory experiences to self-regulate.

Learning Impact

Sensory processing issues can impact a child's ability to focus and learn effectively in school. Challenges may include:

  • Difficulty processing and retaining information.

  • Trouble with handwriting, cutting, or other fine motor tasks.

  • Sensory sensitivities that make the classroom environment overwhelming.

  • Struggles with following instructions or participating in group activities.

Social Impact

Sensory processing issues can also affect a child's social interactions, leading to:

  • Difficulty making and maintaining friendships.

  • Withdrawal from social activities due to sensory sensitivities.

  • Misunderstandings or conflicts with peers due to atypical responses to sensory input.

  • Challenges with understanding social cues and engaging in cooperative play.

Strategies for Managing Sensory Processing Issues

As a parent, there are several practical strategies you can use to help your child cope with sensory challenges and thrive. Here are some tips to consider:

Create a Sensory-Friendly Environment

  • Modify the home environment to reduce sensory overload, such as using soft lighting, minimizing background noise, and providing sensory-friendly furniture.

  • Establish a quiet, designated space where your child can retreat and self-regulate when feeling overwhelmed.

Use Sensory Activities and Tools

  • Incorporate sensory activities into your child's daily routine, such as sensory bins, weighted blankets, or fidget toys.

  • Use sensory breaks to help your child stay regulated throughout the day, allowing time for activities like jumping, swinging, or deep-pressure exercises.

Build Consistent Routines

  • Establish predictable routines to provide structure and reduce anxiety related to transitions.

  • Use visual schedules or timers to help your child understand and anticipate daily activities.

Encourage Physical Activity

  • Engage your child in physical activities that promote motor skills and sensory integration, such as swimming, yoga, or playing on playground equipment.

  • Provide opportunities for both structured and unstructured play to support their development.

Communicate and Collaborate

  • Maintain open communication with your child's teachers, therapists, and other caregivers to ensure consistent support across different environments.

  • Collaborate with professionals to develop individualized strategies and interventions tailored to your child's needs.

Seeking Professional Help

If you suspect your child may have sensory processing issues, seeking professional support is crucial. Here are some steps to take:

Consult with a Pediatrician, Psychologist, Neurologist or Neuropsychologist

  • Discuss your concerns with physician, who can provide guidance and refer you to specialists if needed.

Work with Occupational Therapists

  • Occupational therapists (OTs) specialize in sensory processing and can assess your child's needs, develop personalized intervention plans, and provide hands-on therapy.

Explore Educational Support

  • Work with your child's school to determine if they qualify for special education services or accommodations under an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or 504 Plan.

Join Support Groups

  • Connect with other parents facing similar challenges through support groups or online communities. Sharing experiences and resources can be incredibly valuable.

Understanding sensory processing and its potential challenges is essential for parents. By recognizing signs, implementing strategies, and seeking professional help when needed, you can support your child's development and well-being. Remember, every child is unique, and with patience and persistence, you can help them navigate their sensory world with confidence.

Stay informed, stay engaged, and never hesitate to reach out for support. Your journey as a parent is invaluable, and your efforts make a profound difference in your child's life.


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