Understanding Sensory Processing Issues in Children: Unraveling the Senses


Zoe Barnes

Understanding Sensory Processing Issues in Children: Unraveling the Senses
“The bright lights smell too loud.”  

This is how 15-year-old Sami describes what living with sensory processing issues feels like. Sami’s mother, Simone, first noticed her daughter was sensitive to sounds, smells and lights when she was in Year three.

“She finds lights brighter, sounds louder and smells more overpowering than my two other children,”

says Simone.

“She also hates the feeling of certain fabrics on her skin. We’ve never bothered with a diagnosis, because a lot of these traits only became obvious in her late primary school years and she’s managed to find ways to work around her sensory overload. She sometimes goes into a classroom at lunchtime to avoid the crowded school playground if it’s overwhelming her.”

Sami is not  alone in struggling with everyday lights, sounds, smells and textures. Let’s take a deeper dive into this multifaceted condition.

What are sensory processing issues?

Sensory processing, also known as sensory integration, refers to the ability to recognize, understand, and respond to information received through our senses (Ayres & Robbins, 1979). We have five external senses - sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell - which perceive stimuli from the environment, and two internal senses - proprioception (self-movement and location) and vestibulation (balance) - which detect stimuli within our bodies.

While sensory processing issues can vary among children, they share a common struggle in integrating sensory information and forming appropriate responses. For children with sensory processing issues, sensory experiences that are enjoyable to most children, such as the smell of freshly baked cookies or the touch of a soft kitten's fur, can be unpleasant or even painful, leading them to avoid such stimuli (also referred to as sensory avoiding).

On the other hand, some children may appear unresponsive or even rude because their brains do not register stimuli that others notice quickly due to a lack of intensity (also known as sensory seeking). They may seek out strong sensations by bumping into people or chewing on objects.

In addition to these challenges, sensory processing issues in children can also manifest as poor posture or clumsiness, stemming from difficulties in muscle control and spatial awareness.

Sensory processing issues exist on a spectrum, ranging from severe impairments that warrant a diagnosis of Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) to mild sensory issues where children may engage in activities like

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What do sensory processing issues look like?

While parents may observe that their child displays different behaviours or easily becomes upset over seemingly minor issues, tracing these problems back to sensory processing differences can be challenging. This is because sensory processing issues profoundly affect how children perceive and interact with the world, impacting various aspects of their lives. These include emotional regulation, attention and activity levels, body awareness and coordination, as well as language and social skills.

Signs of sensory processing issues often involve unique reactions to sensations, such as:

  • Irritation or distress over clothing textures, labels, sound volume or pitch, or light/visual patterns.
  • Under-reactivity to sensory input, like not responding to their name being called or having a high pain tolerance.
  • High activity level, seeking pressure through tight hugs or purposefully bumping into people and objects.
  • Low activity level or avoiding movement-based activities.
  • Inappropriate interaction with people or objects, such as touching, licking, or biting.
  • Disliking being messy or resisting grooming.
  • Selective eating or being a picky eater.

Children with sensory processing issues may also experience difficulties with motor skills and body awareness, including:

  • Challenges with fine motor skills, such as struggling to hold pencils, participate in craft activities, buttoning clothing, or tying shoelaces.
  • Clumsiness or awkwardness in movement, such as frequent tripping, difficulty with catching and running.
  • Lack of awareness regarding their bodily needs, such as not recognizing the urge to use the toilet or discerning hunger and fullness.
  • Unusually low or high muscle tone, which can impact coordination and control.
  • Frequent drooling or gagging.
  • Speech difficulties, such as trouble producing speech sounds or unclear speech.

Sensory processing issues can also affect self-regulation, flexibility, and social interactions, leading to:

  • Poor focus or easy distractibility.
  • Emotional reactivity, impulsiveness, or frequent frustration.
  • Anxiety related to everyday sensations.
  • Low self-confidence or dependence beyond what is age-appropriate.
  • Resistance to changes and transitions.
  • Challenges in engaging with peers or refusing to participate in group activities.

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How common are sensory processing issues?

Between 5-16 % of  US children and 8.3 percent of Finnish children experience sensory processing issues (Crasta et al., 2020). While some of these children have sensory processing issues alone, they are often associated with another disorder.

Neurodevelopmental conditions such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are defined by wide-ranging differences in brain functioning that affect how individuals with these conditions process sensory information.  45-95 % of individuals with ASD also show abnormalities in sensory processing (Ben-Sasson et al., 2008), while children with ADHD significantly differ in their sensory profile from neurotypical children (van der Linde et al., 2013).

“My son Billings was diagnosed with ASD at age three and he has multiple sensory processing challenges,”

says Sunshine Coast mum Laura.

“He’s six now, but he’s never gotten an official SPD diagnosis because it’s a feature of his ASD. He can’t stand tags in clothing or his underwear, clothes that make noise like a plastic raincoat, hand dryers in public toilets, being wet even though he likes swimming, having his hair washed, mushy foods or loud noises... yet he loves TimeZone. There are a lot of contradictions because he is both a sensory seeker and a sensory avoider depending on the situation. He also likes hugs and tight cuddles and needs sensory input from others, so he bumps into his classmates a lot to receive that input.”

Sarah’s daughter Charlotte was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at 18 months and SPD at age.

“She’s now and she doesn't cope well with loud noises,” says Sarah. “Hand dryers are a particular problem - we can’t use any public toilets because the noise causes her to cover her ears and fall to the ground crying. Even if that doesn’t happen, she still won’t use the bathroom.”

How can I help my child with sensory processing issues?

If you think your child has sensory processing issues, there are several steps you can take to help them. Firstly, parents can ask their health professionals to use a Sensory Checklist to assess their child’s behaviour and see if a professional consultation is needed. The Sensory Checklist can be adapted for different ages and can also be filled out by other adults who spend significant amounts of time with the child, such as their teachers, to build a more accurate sensory portrait.

A Sensory Checklist can provide valuable insights for parents, helping them decide if their child's sensory issues warrant further attention from a clinician. Consulting with an occupational therapist or psychologist can assist your child in navigating the world, improving their social, emotional, and motor skills. These professionals can also evaluate whether the child's sensory processing issues meet the criteria for a diagnosis of SPD or if they are part of a separate neurodevelopmental condition, such as ADHD or ASD.

A clinician working with a child who has sensory processing differences may suggest lifestyle changes to help  with sensory regulation and interpretation. For example, a “sensory diet” may be recommended. This is a personalised list of sensory-based activities that are undertaken regularly so that the child can experience sensory feedback and learn how to organise information (Biel & Peske, 2009). Clinicians may also prescribe specific programs developed to assist children with sensory processing issues in learning key skills, such as the Alert program or the M.O.R.E program (Kid Sense, n.d.).

Need help? We’re here for you

The Quirky Kid Clinic is a unique place for children and adolescents aged  2-18 years old. We work from the child’s perspective to help them find their own solutions.

If your child is exhibiting some of the signs of sensory processing issues and you want to investigate, book a session with one of our experienced child psychologists.

At Britechild, our digital child psychology clinic, we provide support to parents worldwide - visit www.britechild.com

View article references

  • Ayres, J. A., & Robbins, J. (1979). Sensory Integration and the Child (1st ed.). Western Psychological Services.
  • Ben-Sasson, A., Hen, L., Fluss, R., Cermak, S. A., Engel-Yeger, B., & Gal, E. (2008). A meta-analysis of sensory modulation symptoms in individuals with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 39(1), 1-11. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-008-0593-3
  • Crasta, J. E., Salzinger, E., Lin, M. H., Gavin, W. J., & Davies, P. L. (2020). Sensory Processing and Attention Profiles Among Children With Sensory Processing Disorders and Autism Spectrum Disorders. Frontiers in integrative neuroscience, 14, 22. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnint.2020.00022
  • Biel, L., & Peske, N. K. (2009). Raising a Sensory Smart Child: The Definitive Handbook for Helping Your Child with Sensory Integration Issues (1st ed.). Penguin Books.
  • Dunn, W. (2007). Supporting Children to Participate Successfully in Everyday Life by Using Sensory Processing Knowledge. Infants and Young Children, 20(2), 84-101. https://doi.org/10.1097/01.IYC.0000264477.05076.5d
  • Kid Sense. (n.d.). Sensory Processing. Kid Sense. https://childdevelopment.com.au/areas-of-concern/sensory-processing/
  • McMahon, K., Anand, D., Morris-Jones, M., & Rosenthal, Z. M. (2019). A Path From Childhood Sensory Processing Disorder to Anxiety Disorders: The Mediating Role of Emotion Dysregulation and Adult Sensory Processing Disorder Symptoms.
  • Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience, 13(1), 22. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnint.2019.00022
  • Miller, L. J., Anzalone, M. E., Lane, S. J., Cermak, S. A., & Osten, E. T. (2007). Concept evolution in sensory integration: a proposed nosology for diagnosis. The American Journal of Occupational Therapy, 61(2), 135-140. https://doi.org/10.5014/ajot.61.2.135
  • Niutanen, U., Harra, T., Lano, A., & Metsaranta, M. (2020). Systematic review of sensory processing in preterm children reveals abnormal sensory modulation, somatosensory processing and sensory-based motor processing. Acta Paediatrica, 109(1), 45-55. https://doi.org/10.1111/apa.14953
  • van der Linde, J., Franzsen, D., & Ashton, P. (2013). The sensory profile: Comparative analysis of children with Specific Language Impairment, ADHD and autism. South African Journal of Occupational Therapy, 43(3), 2013.


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