Understanding Sensory Processing Issues in Children

Many parents with children who often describe sounds or sights in strange ways may chalk it up to an improper understanding of their own senses, or a very active imagination. While it’s not uncommon for children to declare incorrect statements about their environment, those who consistently display behaviours like difficulty with balance and coordination, being aggressive when wanting attention, or jumping up and down regularly, may be experiencing sensory issues. 

These sensory processing issues can be a source of great discomfort for children, often to the point of affecting their development and causing atypical behaviour. To shed some light on what sensory processing issues are and how they can be identified and treated, we’ve created this guide to provide concerned parents and carers with more clarity. 

What are sensory processing issues?

Sensory processing issues refer to the inability to experience sensory information accurately. Such issues occur most commonly in young children, often starting around 1-3 years old. 

There are two main forms of sensory processing issues: oversensitivity and undersensitivity. 

With oversensitivity, affected children will often experience mild sensory stimuli with a greater-than-normal intensity. For example, children with oversensitive sensory processing issues may find usually pleasant musical sounds to be too loud or piercing, causing them pain or discomfort. 

Conversely, undersensitivity often results in experiences where affected children are unable to detect or register sensations or feel them at a low intensity, making them appear unresponsive or even rude. To cope with this, they may frequently exhibit behaviours such as bumping into things or becoming drawn to certain changes in stimuli like the turning on and off of light sources. 

In rare cases, sensory processing issues can also cause children to associate different types of sensations with stimuli, such as “hearing the brightness of lights” or “seeing colours of a certain smell”. 

How common are sensory processing issues in children?

Research as of 2004 has indicated that sensory processing issues occur in about 1 in every 20 children. While this may seem quite common, not all types of sensory processing issues are felt with the same intensity, with most occurring with mild symptoms, rather than severe ones. 

Sensory processing issues signs and symptoms

Because of how it varies in different children, sensory processing issues can be quite ambiguous and thus difficult to identify. However, there are some common behaviours and signs that could point to the experience of sensory processing issues. 

A child may have oversensitive sensory processing issues if they:

  • Avoid or express discomfort from loud sounds like a vacuum cleaner or a plane flying overhead
  • Avoid brightly lit environments, or dislike looking at brightly coloured objects
  • Steer away from strong smelling food or scents
  • Express reluctance to touching certain objects during play, citing discomfort
  • Dislike wearing clothes made with abrasive material or those that hug the body (e.g.,. socks)
  • Become upset in moving vehicles
  • Feel uncomfortable due to changes in temperature

A child may have undersensitive sensory processing issues if they:

  • Don’t notice loud noises like alarms, even when awake
  • Have a fondness of watching lights turn on and off
  • Have a preference for excessively salty or spicy food
  • Fail to respond to touch or having their name called
  • Constantly and intentionally bump into people or objects, especially during play
  • Have difficulty sitting still and want to fidget

As we’ve said above, a lot of these signs could also be a part of the developmental process for the child, so it’s important to take their overall behaviour into consideration instead of relying on one or two isolated signs to determine if they are having sensory processing issues.

Assessment and diagnosis of sensory processing issues

Sensory processing issues are often a key symptom of a condition known as Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). While this disorder is not officially recognised as a medical condition in Australia, its symptoms are still very real for affected children and their parents. 

Not all children with sensory processing issues are considered to have SPD. Milder cases of sensory processing issues often fade with time as the child learns to adapt and manage their senses. 

Severe sensory processing issues have been found to be one of the key symptoms experienced by children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Such severe cases of sensory processing issues where children seem to be unable to cope with their sensory ability will require the expertise of a child psychologist to diagnose the condition.

Treating sensory process issues in children

Children with sensory processing issues often require the specialised care of occupational therapy and/or counselling sessions with a child psychologist to help them manage their sensory abilities and experiences. 

Treatment will often include providing an environment that is better suited to their senses, depending on whether they are over or undersensitive, and slowly acclimatising them to the natural everyday spaces around them. Counselling therapy has also proven to be very helpful for both children and parents in understanding how to manage the difficulties of sensory processing issues. 

If you feel that your child may be experiencing sensory processing issues, it’s important that you take action to address their needs, especially if the symptoms they display are severe. You may wish to get them checked for ASD with an early screening and diagnosis so that you can make the necessary adjustments to provide a better quality of life for your child, as well as obtain expert guidance on how to help them. 

At New Vision Psychology, we help children and parents deal with sensory processing issues. We also offer autism spectrum assessments in Sydney to help determine if your child is on the spectrum, as well as how their sensory process issues can be best managed as they develop. Book a consultation with us today for a comprehensive diagnosis and empathetic treatment to secure a better future for your child.

Need support with your child’s behaviour?

New Vision Psychology can help.