Sensory Issues in Children: What It Means and How to Help

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Does your child overreact to loud noises or only want to eat certain colored foods? How do you know if your child is simply acting his age or if you should seek assistance for a sensory issue?

Does your child overreact to loud noises or only want to eat certain colored foods? How do you know if your child is simply acting his age or if you should seek assistance for a sensory issue? For the answers, we talked to Jill Fodstad, Ph.D., HSPP, BCBA-D, psychologist at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health. Here, her expert insights.

What are sensory issues?

Kids who have sensory sensitivities are classified as experiencing a stronger than average reaction when it comes to one of the five senses (taste, touch, smell, hearing, sight). Currently, there are no national statistics on how many children have sensory sensitivities. Fodstad speculates that the reason for this is because it’s a hard condition to quantify. “Some of the issues could be developmental (meaning your child might have sensitivities, but will grow out of it and it’s not necessarily abnormal), or could be related to another condition (like autism) or it could even be a behavior that is copied from classmates,” she notes. It could also be something your child seeks out because it feels good (chewing on his shirt calms him when he feels anxious).

Are they inherited?

There’s not enough data to know, notes Fodstad. However, she points out, it does seem that kids who have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), certain anxiety disorders, and even learning/cognitive difficulties are more prone to having sensory issues. “However, this is not to say that a child who has sensory sensitivities would meet criteria for ADHD or ASD,” she says. So while sensory issues are seen often among kids with ADHD or autism, if your child has sensory issues, it doesn’t necessarily mean he has either of these conditions. Fodstad also points out that children with ADHD or ASD may have parents with the same conditions who may also have sensory sensitives themselves.  This speaks to the fact that there may well be a genetic component, she says, but more research needs to be done.

Treating sensory sensitivities

“How we view and treat sensory issues, depends on how significant these issues are,” says Fodstad. “If it’s impacting your child’s daily functioning--at home, school or socially--then it’s worth having a conversation with your pediatrician to see if you need some outside help.”

For example, if your child spends hours picking out the right shirt or pair of socks, because of the tags, texture and feel, and it creates chaos every morning in your household, it’s impacting your child’s everyday life.  And while he might just be a stubborn preschooler, your doctor will be able to tell if your little one is simply acting his age or if there’s something else going on.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, AAP, notes that some kids with sensory issues may be hypersensitive to things in their surroundings, like bright lights, and will avoid them, while other kids seek out certain sensations and engage in behaviors that feel good, like chewing on their shirt sleeve.

 “The goal in treating sensory issues is to teach kids what appropriate behaviors might be, so they can handle certain situations better,” says Fodstad.

If, for example, your child has sensitivity to loud noises and avoids situations—like restaurants—due to this sensory issue, a psychologist would put together a plan to treat this situation. “One way is to expose the child to that noise that frightens him for a short amount of time and then providing positive re-enforcements when they react appropriately,” says Fodstad. So, maybe go into the restaurant for take-out (exposing them to loud noises for just a few minutes), she says. Then, slowly adding more time until the child can handle the event.

“The ultimate outcome is to teach kids that they can handle the situation,” Fodstad. So instead of offering headphones to cancel out noise, she suggests giving kids a reward for making it through it. “The goal is to focus on skill-building—how you can help your child cope with the ‘negative’ event,” she says.

Lastly, make sure it’s a reward, not a bribe. What’s the difference? According to Fodstad, a reward is something given to a child after he does something well, whereas a bribe happens when the child has already started the inappropriate behavior and you, as the parent, are getting him to stop (he’s screaming during the fireworks, and you tell him if he stops screaming, he can have a cookie). “You want to reward them for making it through the behavior and becoming more adaptable,” says Fodstad. But if you bribe him, he’ll know he can do the inappropriate behavior for at least a little while before getting the treat.

-- By Judy Koutsky

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