Sensory Sensitivities in Kids: When to Get Help and How to Implement Strategies at Home

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While all kids go through developmental age-appropriate issues, kids who have sensory sensitivities have a stronger than average reaction.

More kids are being categorized as having sensory issues and yet many parents are unsure how to address their child’s needs. We talked to Jill Fodstad, Ph.D., HSPP, BCBA-D, psychologist at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health. Here, expert insights. 

What are sensory issues?

Some kids are very sensitive to loud noises, certain foods or textures or certain material or tags in clothing. While all kids go through developmental age-appropriate issues (what three-year-old isn’t a picky eater), kids who have sensory sensitivities have a stronger than average reaction. It affects their every-day life. There are no national statistics on how many kids have these issues, in part because it’s so hard 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).

Fodstad explains that comprehensive studies have shown that the most common sensitivities are to bright lights, loud noises, food textures and food tastes as well as grooming activities, like getting haircut, nails clipped, brushing teeth. Additionally, kids with sensory sensitives were found to be more likely to mouth objects (chew their shirt) and prefer activities that involved more movement and physical exertion.

How can kids (and parents) deal with these issues as children grow?

“For sensory issues that are of an impairing naturethose that impact your child’s daily functioning at home, school, or socially—then it’s worth having a conversation with your child’s pediatrician to see if they can recommend an expert, like a psychologist, to help,” says Fodstad.

So how can you tell if your child falls into the category of having sensory sensitives versus doing something that is age appropriate? It can be hard to tell. “Many sensory sensitivities are tied to typical child development, like your two-year-old toddler refusing to eat his peas or anything green,” says Fodstad.  “However, if these issues persist as your child gets older or if there are significant accompanying problem behaviors or if the sensitivity impairs the child socially or academically, the parent should seek help.” Fodstad recommends that in the absence of significant problem behaviors (the child being physically aggressive to others or themselves, throwing disruptive temper tantrums, noncompliant) during times they are exhibiting sensory sensitives (loud noises, bright lights, foods they don’t like), wait and see if the child grows out of these issues. This is especially true if the child is young and is developing normally. 

Also, for situations where your child has significant behavior problems (those that have prolonged temper tantrums or aggressive behavior) during these difficult times it might be best to see someone who specializes in these issues, like a psychologist, to help develop a treatment plan that not only targets reducing the sensitivity but also addresses how to safely and appropriately manage problem behaviors when they occur.

What are some strategies that can be used at home?

Working with your kids on their specific sensitivity (be it loud noises or not eating specific foods) at home makes it more comfortable for your child. It’s a safe, comfortable environment in which anxiety levels should be lower (than say in a restaurant). Other things to keep in mind:

  1. Employ strategies that are based upon research.  Fodstad explains there’s no one “go to book.” Instead she says it’s imperative to discuss your concerns with a qualified health professional. “It’s going to be the best place to determine what are appropriate and research-based strategies that may be helpful for your child.”
  2. Find strategies that are not overly burdensome for the parent to carry out.  “If a parent is seeking help from a qualified expert and the recommendation is over and beyond what they can carry out taking into consideration in their own specific circumstances (other children, personal/family responsibilities, finances), the parent should speak up and work with the therapist/doctor/psychologist who is helping them to come up with a better plan that works for the family and for the child,” says Fodstad.
  3. Try to track your child’s progress (by keeping a journal).  
  4. Use more positive-based strategies for doing a good job instead of negative strategies when the child does not meet your expectations.
  5. Start at a level where the child can easily be successful right off the bat and slowly build your expectations over time. So if your child will eat no vegetables, instead of trying to get him to eat a serving, start with a small amount, like one pea. Then when he does this, praise him and give him a reward (special TV show or dessert).  “The goal is to make sure the initial steps you take to assist your child are helpful right off the bat – it’s going to be a lot less stress for the parent and will help the child buy into the new way of doing things,” explains Fodstad.

The goal is to help your child essentially learn how to be more flexible and able to handle and cope with some environment, event, or sensory experience that they perceive to be stressful or hard-to-handle. Over time, and with practice and encouragement, your child will be better able to handle things on their own.

-- By Judy Koutsky

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