Is your child sensitive to touch, sounds, sights and smells?

I was talking to a friend the other day and she was telling me that her sister-in-law’s son was having some problems and she asked me if I had any ideas. After further questioning it seemed we had a sensory integration issue going on here. She asked some really great questions on strategies to make life easier for the child and for his family as sometimes these reactions may interfere with daily activities.

My first thoughts were to explain that sensory integration dysfunction is a huge can of worms. However, those worms can be contained with various approaches. Not every approach works all the time and in the same situation, though.

So why open this can of worms you ask? Why not? Why not share some ideas that you can put in your “toolbox” to help a child who is sensitive to various inputs?

Have you ever had a day or week when everything seems to be irritating? As an adult we know that we cannot throw a fit or refuse to get dressed and start our day. No, we pull ourselves together the best we can and get on with things.

We know to wear our sunglasses if the sun is too bright or turn off the overhead lights and use natural light to soothe our eyes. We know to pull on those worn out sweatpants when we get home from a long hard day. We cover our ears when we know a loud noise is coming or we remove ourselves from the situation. We know to avoid situations that put us in close contact with others or places where we may get too many unwanted accidental bumps or shoves. We stay out of the coffee shop if our sense of smell is very sensitive or we try not to take a deep breath when driving by the hog farm.

As adults, we have mature coping skills that help us not stand out and put on a show when our sensory systems are irritated. Thank goodness, as I know I would put on one too many shows, and who knows where I would end up at the end of the day.

Many young children do not have this ability, though. That bright light or noisy flushing toilet or unwanted contact with friends and classmates, or the dinner mom has worked so hard to prepare, sends them over the edge of no return.

Stop and remember how you would feel if that were you. What would you do? Become more aware of what may set off your child. I’m not saying that our family lives will forever revolve around our sensory-sensitive child, but try to walk in their shoes and find ways that may work for them to provide them the security we all want.

For the auditory sensitive child

Turn down the TV or stereo; be aware that strong bass is more obnoxious to the sensory system. Give the child the choice to put on headphones that drown out some of the noises. Classical music playing softly in the background is a good way to unwind for the entire family at the end of the day.

For the visually sensitive child

Make sure they have sunglasses that they can wear on a sunny day. Change some of your light bulbs at home to the soft white kind, turn off the overhead lights and use God’s light or use a lamp instead. Dimmer switches are great. You can slowly adjust the light to where it needs to be.

For the child sensitive to odors

Keep the air fresh at home with open windows, ceiling fans and live plants, and avoid cooking strong smelling foods when the child is in the home. Children will most likely smell their food before eating it and that’s okay. But be aware of strong seasoning, what we like may be too much for their young developing systems.

Provide them with a “smelly bag”— a small breathable sack with a pleasant smell that they can pull out and smell if they need to be grounded. Don’t you find that smells can trigger memories or pleasant, or not-so-pleasant thoughts?

For the touch sensitive child

Find softer clothing that isn’t too binding. Avoid going shopping with them when stores are at their busiest. That in itself is overwhelming in so many ways. Light touch is not as comforting as a firm hug.

Remember going to the dentist and the anxiety you face over the unknown cavity or procedure you are not looking forward to? Remember the feeling of the lead drape they place on you for the x-rays? That firm weight actually calms the nervous system so it’s okay if you or your child wants to keep that on during a routine visit to the dentist. Doesn’t it seem that most of the time a strong, protective hug does the trick?

Before getting frustrated with your child, take a walk in their “sensory” world. What you would do for yourself without thinking, they need you to do for them so they can continue to grow and seek many learning opportunities through play, exploration, laughing and living.

About the author

Mary Hawkins
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Mary is an Occupational Therapist at Our Children’s House in Las Colinas. She enjoys working with all children, especially those with pediatric orthopedic injuries and Autism. In her spare time, she rides her horses Luke, Eclipse & Fin and competes in equestrian competitions.

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Is your child sensitive to touch, sounds, sights and smells?