Sensory processing disorder is known to contribute to behavioral and emotional problems, particularly in children and adolescents. Read the article to know about its signs, symptoms, and treatment.
What Are Sensory Processing Difficulties?
Young people with sensory processing difficulties have trouble in dealing with their sensory input and can find everyday life difficult. Most humans seamlessly deal with information related to touch, sight, hearing, smell, taste, body movements, etc. But those suffering from this sensory processing difficulties can be either hypersensitive or hyposensitive to one or different senses. Some can suffer a combination of both hyper and hypo sensitivity to different senses.
Children and adolescents with sensory processing difficulties can be fussy, fidgety, overactive, struggle to concentrate in classes, get anxious,and react aggressively when faced with uncomfortable stimuli and refuse to engage in normal daily activities. Even innocuous activities like taking bath, brushing teeth, and getting dressed can become a battle when the child is having sensory processing difficulties. They can be easily misunderstood and their behaviour can be wrongly interpreted as intentionally difficult.
Sensory processing difficulties can run in families and is said to have a genetic component. It may happen due to differences in the way senses are processed by the brain, but the exact cause and biological underpinnings are still being studied.
Young people suffering from hypersensitivity can be highly disturbed by seemingly normal sensory input. Usual sensory stimuli can be perceived as uncomfortable or painful and can negatively affect the person’s emotions and behaviour.
How to Manage Sensory Processing Difficulties?
Many young people learn to compensate and some have spontaneous improvement in their sensory symptoms as they grow older. Improving awareness about this condition, especially among parents and teachers will help to manage young people with sensory processing difficulties. Recognize that sensory overload can upset young people with this condition and can adversely affect their behaviour. Health professionals can advise about making simple modifications and help people to manage uncomfortable sensory input, which will have a calming effect. For example,
Consult a doctor experienced in this field or occupational therapist who can help to formulate an individual plan to manage people based on their sensory profile.
Some months ago, I had a parent consulting me for advice about his son who was in primary school. He is reported to have behavioural difficulties and parents found it hard dealing with his fussy behaviour on a daily basis. For example, parents were frustrated to get him dressed. The child always wanted to wear the same pants daily. He threw a major tantrum when his parents made him wear other clothes. He was very comfortable wearing blue coloured jeans from a lesser known brand. He preferred the same colour, he was comfortable with the feel and stitch of that particular jeans brand. He was reluctant to wear other clothes, he did not even try jeans from other costlier brands. Whenever he was made to wear other pants, he became restless, distractible, anxious, and eventually had behavioural meltdowns. He also was eating a limited repertoire of food items. He disliked food items with strong taste, smell, and gagged when made to eat oily food. He also disliked the noise when parents were using a mixer grinder and vacuum cleaner at home.
This young boy was clearly hypersensitive to touch, texture, smell, taste and noise. Before his difficulties were recognised as related to sensory processing difficulties, his parents, family and teachers wrongly assumed that he was deliberately difficult. All disciplinary measures did not work and life was difficult for the young boy and everyone involved. Thankfully, a practical approach involving calming strategies, sensory strategies with occupational therapy input helped in managing the child’s various hypersensitivities. There was a remarkable improvement in his behaviour both at home and school in a matter of a few weeks.
If any parents or teachers are concerned about possible sensory processing difficulties in their children, consult your doctor for further advice. Health professionals like paediatrician, child psychiatrist, psychologist or occupational therapist can help with further assessment and management.
Last reviewed at:
06 Apr 2020 - 4 min read
MBBS, DCH, MRCPCH, MRCPsych, CCT ( Child & Adolescent Psychiatry)
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