Sensory processing refers to the ability to register information through our senses, (sound, sight, taste and so on), to filter the information we receive and to make appropriate responses.
Most individuals are able to sort such information effectively and will only take on-board anything relevant. However, some children are over sensitive to stimuli, experience a difficulty filtering the input and quickly become overloaded. They may have an extreme reaction to the flood of sensory information they receive: light hurts their eyes because it’s too bright; their tie feels so tight, they think they’re being choked; the food they’re offered looks sloppy and makes them gag; the smell in the changing rooms is so overpowering, they think they’ll faint. The child’s reaction to these strong feelings may be extreme: –
- If they exhibit a fight response, they become irritable, challenge others, hit out, shout or use inappropriate language.
- A freeze response will include constantly checking everything, being uncommunicative, appearing tense and ready to bolt.
- A flee response includes running away, feeling ill and insisting they must go home or devising increasingly desperate avoidance strategies.
While everyone will be able to recall moments of sheer panic when they have behaved like this, perhaps when facing a dental or hospital appointment, job interview or giving a presentation to a large group; as adults we are able to rationalise our feelings and control our anxiety. Children do not have the maturity to be able to do this. It is exhausting for the child to be continually on such a high level of alert, just waiting for an ear-splitting noise, to be blinded by bright lights or nauseated by an overpowering smell. They will have little headroom left for any other activity and, unfortunately, this will include learning.
The first approach to dealing with sensory overload is to try to avoid it: –
- Identify any triggers for the child, for example, hot, noisy, brightly lit shops at busy times of the day: try to shop on line or at quieter times.
- Some children are hypersensitive to smell, so avoid using heady perfumes, scented hair products and strong-smelling washing powder.
- Learn to recognise the warning signs of imminent sensory overload: the child may begin to behave in certain, predictable ways. When you notice this happening, remove as much sensory input as possible and take child to a quiet place where they can calm down: a tent in their room, a swing in the garden, a favourite tree to climb into. Provide soothing activities, perhaps drawing, colouring, listening to music or a story CD, and allow them plenty of time to relax.
- Provide regular sensory breaks during the day to help the child to self-calm. Repetitive physical movement, for example, bouncing on a trampoline or kicking a ball against a wall can be particularly helpful.
- The physical action of chewing soothes and helps with self-regulation: use chewie toys or chewing gum.
- Teach calming breathing techniques and practise them daily.
- Ensure the child has adequate water, food and sleep. Even mild feelings of hunger, tiredness and thirst will affect their ability to cope.
A second approach would be to make accommodations: –
- Try to discover why certain articles of clothing bother the child. Solutions might include: fleece hoodies to cut down on noise and visual input, seamless bamboo socks and loose-fitting jogging bottoms for comfort, labels removed to reduce irritation, wearing slippers or gumboots rather than having bare feet when it is cold.
- Use ear defenders, noise cancelling headphones or ear plugs to help with loud or unpleasant noise, such as vacuum cleaners, busy playtimes, fire alarms or hand dryers.
- Put generous amounts of conditioner on the child’s hair to help with brushing. Try a few different hairbrushes to give the child a choice, then agree how many brush strokes will be used.
- Some children find a vibrating toothbrush calming. Try to avoid toothpaste with a strong smell or taste, using non-mint flavours and non-foaming products instead.
- Some children feel pain when another person brushes past them, so give advanced warning before touching the child.
- Use sunglasses or coloured lenses, sun visors, ski-ing goggles, peaked caps and dimmer switches to help the child cope with bright light. ⠀
Many of the children who experience sensory difficulties in childhood, will have fewer problems as they grow older and increasingly able to self-regulate. In the same way that children learn to walk or are toilet trained over different time scales, the sensory systems of children mature at individual rates.