Sensory Disorder: What Does It Mean and What Can be Done About It?

Sensory Disorder or Sensory Integration Disorder is a diagnosis that is starting to get more attention these days. Maybe you know someone who says that their child has a sensory disorder or sensory processing disorder, but what exactly does it mean?

Let’s start with defining the different types of sensory input. We all know about the 5 senses that we are taught about in elementary school:

  • Our sense of sight or how we see things come through our eyes
  • Our sense of sound or how we hear things come through our ears
  • Our sense of smell comes through our nose
  • Our sense of taste comes through our mouth
  • Our sense of touch or how we feel things is transmitted through our skin

In addition to these 5 well-known senses, there are other ways our body receives input as well:

  • Our vestibular sense which is how our body processes movement comes through our inner ear
  • Our proprioceptive sense which allows us to know where our body parts are in the amount of force we use during movements comes through our inner ear and receptors located in joints throughout our body
  • Interoception is recognizing and understanding internal feelings in our body such as the ability to know when you are hungry, know when you feel hot or cold

Sensory play with textures

These senses give our body a way to process and interact with the world around us. Most individuals have the ability to determine which sensations are most important and can ignore those that are irrelevant. For example, right now, my vision can focus on the words on the screen but ignore the sound of the fan overhead because that doesn’t have a direct impact on my current activity. However, for those people with a sensory disorder, their body does not process the sensations in a typical manner. They may be oversensitive to the sensation known as hypersensitive, under-reactive to the sensation known as hyposensitive, or may seek out different types of sensation known as sensory seeking. The following are just a couple of examples of sensory disorders, it is by no means, an exhaustive list.

Sight

  • Hypersensitive – frequently covers eyes in bright lights, prefers solid colors over patterns
  • Hyposensitive – does not respond to rapid contrasting changes in light (strobe lights)
  • Sensory Seeker – will look directly into bright lights, seeks out bright patterns with contrasting colors

Sound

  • Hypersensitive – will cover ears at sounds that others don’t perceive as loud, startles easily with sounds, avoids loud sounds
  • Hyposensitive – does not respond to loud sounds such as a fire alarm
  • Sensory Seeker – will place objects that make noise right next to their ears, will throw objects to hear the sound it makes when it hits the floor

Smell

  • Hypersensitive – gags at the smell of foods, makes faces when smells are present
  • Hyposensitive – doesn’t respond to extreme smells
  • Sensory Seeker– will repeatedly bring things to their nose to smell them

Taste

  • Hypersensitive – will only eat bland flavors, eats a limited number of foods
  • Hyposensitive – can eat strong flavors and hot foods with no reaction
  • Sensory Seeker – prefers strong flavors such as sour things and extreme spicy foods

Touch

  • Hypersensitive – will only wear specific types of clothing, doesn’t like to be touched
  • Hyposensitive – shows no reaction to abrasive textures
  • Sensory Seeker – wants to touch different types of textures

Vestibular

  • Hypersensitive – doesn’t like extreme movements, doesn’t like climbing or swinging at the playground
  • Hyposensitive – can spin in circles without getting dizzy
  • Sensory Seeker – likes to climb, jump, and spin on things

Proprioceptive

  • Hypersensitive – appears to be clumsy when moving, may be a picky eater because certain foods require coordinated and forceful chewing
  • Hyposensitive – poor body awareness, may sit in uncomfortable position for extended periods of time without readjusting self
  • Sensory Seeker– purposefully bumps into things, walks touching the sides of walls, constantly leaning on things

Interoception

  • Hypersensitive – overeats because they constantly feel hungry, always feels hot or cold
  • Hyposensitive – struggles with potty training because they can’t recognize when they need to go
  • Sensory Seeker – holds their bladder too long because they like the feeling of a full bladder

Children can exhibit difficulties with a single sense or a combination of senses. Although these processing disorders can impact daily life, there is hope. Working with an occupational therapist can help to determine specific areas of sensitivity then create a plan to address these deficits. Creating a plan specific to each child’s needs can help to teach the brain the proper way to process sensory inputs or help identify ways to change daily routines to decrease sensory-based meltdowns.

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