Too Loud, Too Bright, Too Much: Understanding Sensory Sensitivities
Imagine for a moment that you’re sitting in a café with a friend, grabbing a late lunch after a day at the beach.
You’re trying to relax and enjoy the conversation, but you can’t stop thinking about the sand stuck inside your sock. You keep trying to shake your foot to relieve the irritation, but it won’t stop.
Suddenly, the background music in the café is cranked up to full volume with the speaker right beside your table. You try desperately to cover your ears to block the sound while also trying to hear what your friend is saying.
On top of that, the sunlight is streaming through the window directly into your eyes and you can’t even see your friend’s face. You try to shield your eyes, but you can’t block both the music and the sun.
Your heartbeat quickens and you begin to fidget incessantly, but you decide that you’ll wait it out until your meal arrives because you’re so hungry.
Just then, the fire alarm goes off, smoke fills the air, and the stench of burnt food wafts over to your table.
It’s just too much. You can’t think of anything else but finding the fastest way to escape the onslaught of sensory input.
You run outside and your heart is still pounding, your head hurts, you forgot about your friend, and it takes you hours to recover.
What you just experienced is what’s known as sensory processing overload, and is an everyday experience for children who are sensitive to sensory input.
Understanding sensory processing
Sensory processing is your brain’s way of assessing how the input from your environment is affecting your body.
When working effectively, you’re able to take new input (like a sight, a sound, or a smell), assess what it is, and determine whether it’s alarming.
You’re then able to progressively ignore it so that you can function normally and complete your activity. All of this is often done unconsciously.
For example, picture yourself sitting in the backyard reading a book when your neighbor begins to mow his lawn. Your brain is able to hear the sound of the lawnmower, process it, and progressively ignore it to allow you to keep reading.
What is sensory sensitivity?
Sensory sensitivity is one of multiple manifestations of Sensory Processing Disorder.
For a child who has sensory sensitivities, he or she processes much of the incoming input as alarming.
As a result, the child is unable to progressively ignore the input, which results in a constant “fight or flight” state of being.
As is normal for anyone who is in a “fight or flight” state of being, the child is subsequently unable to calm down, focus on learning, follow simple directions or safety instructions, or interact with others.
To put it simply, children and other individuals with sensory sensitivities are trying to survive: they’re reacting normally to what they perceive in the environment around them.
When sensitivities are painful enough for a child, they will choose to avoid activities with those sensations in order to protect themselves.
A pediatric occupational therapist can help assess how sensory processing is affecting your child.
What are some symptoms of sensory sensitivity?
Common symptoms of sensory sensitivity include:
- Crying or covering ears in response to sounds
- Inability to pay attention when there is noise
- Seeming to not hear when his or her name is called
- Enjoying playing in the dark
- Crying or becoming distressed when there are bright lights or sunlight
- Resisting having hair or fingernails cut
- Refusing to wear certain clothes or only wearing certain materials
- Getting anxious in crowded spaces
- Scratching the skin to the point of irritation when touched
- Being a very picky eater or only eating a limited diet
- Running away or having a tantrum after experiencing an unfamiliar or distressing sensation
How are sensory sensitivities treated?
Many sensory sensitivities can be effectively treated through occupational therapy.
At South Shore Health, our pediatric occupational therapists are skilled at assessing your child’s sensory system and responses to changes in his or her environments.
As part of the assessment, a pediatric occupational therapist will identify your child’s specific sensitivities and determine what environmental inputs are setting off those sensitivities.
After the assessment has been completed, the therapist will develop a treatment plan personalized to each child’s unique needs.
This treatment will help manage your child’s sensory sensitivities and will improve his or her ability to participate in desired activities along with peers.
How can I get treatment for my child’s sensory sensitivities?
If you suspect that your child may be experiencing sensory sensitivities, you should first discuss your concerns with your child’s pediatrician.
If your pediatrician determines that sensory sensitivities are present, he or she will refer you and your child for an occupational therapy evaluation for sensory sensitivities.
From there, an occupational therapist will work with you and your child to assess the extent of the sensory sensitivities and to begin treatment.