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

Our sensory systems include touch (tactile), sound (auditory), taste (gustatory), smell (olfactory) and sight (visual). When all of these systems are working together and balancing the world around them, children can adapt to daily changes and feel great!

But what happens to a child when these systems are not working together?

This is what we call sensory integration dysfunction. There are many different approaches to solving sensory issues. Not every approach works all the time and in the same situation, though, so it’s important to share some ideas that you can put in your toolbox to help a child who is sensitive to various inputs.

Kids don’t have the mature coping skills that help adults cope when our own sensory systems are irritated. Try to stop and imagine how you would feel if that were you as a child. What would you do? Try to walk in their shoes and find ways that may work for them to provide the security we all want.

For the auditory sensitive child

Our auditory sensory system is the first to develop prenatally and helps our body organize, coordinate movement and support a sense of balance. When this system is over-responsive, children may demonstrate distress from:

  • Loud noises, such as voices, household appliances
  • Unexpected noises, such as sirens, alarms, thunder, balloons popping
  • High-pitched or tinny sounds, such as clinking silverware, whistles, screeching chalk

Strategies to support this sensory system include simplifying your language and talking calmly and slowly. Use rhythm and beat to introduce frequencies and tones. Talk about what those scary or nonpreferred noises are, and remind them that they are safe.

For the visually sensitive child

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The visual sensory system is our ability to identify, anticipate and respond through our eyesight, developed over time from our experiences. When this system is experiencing dysfunction and over- or under-responsiveness, you may observe:

  • Frequent headaches, eye strain, blinking, squinting, double vision
  • Avoidance of or distress towards bright lights, sunlight or moving objects
  • Seeking visual information via spinning, or staring at patterns or strobe lights
  • Difficulty finding everyday items in an array of belongings

Strategies for the visually sensitive child include the use of sunglasses or hats outside, soft white lights or dimming bright lights indoors, playing I-spy or guessing games, flashlight tag at night, doing puzzles, completing mazes or playing ball games.

For the child sensitive to tastes and odors

The gustatory system (taste) and the olfactory system (smell) aren’t often talked about. These systems are really important during mealtimes, hunger and feeding. When this system demonstrates dysfunction, your child may demonstrate:

  • Accepting only specific flavors and textures of food
  • Seeking behaviors for smelling foods and nonfoods
  • Licking or placing of objects into the mouth that is typically not related to their development
  • Avoidance towards certain areas

Some common smells might be perceived as calming (such as apple, pine needles or vanilla) or as arousing (such as coffee, chocolate or vinegar). If there are strong smells within the home, find ways to encourage airflow by opening a window, relocating candles or using a ceiling fan. Do not try to eliminate strong smells with another smell. If you notice discomfort with the use of air fresheners or scented wallflowers, move them or use them sparingly.

For the touch sensitive child

The tactile system perceives sensations from touch, temperature, vibration or pressure. Additionally, it plays a role in social interactions, emotional well-being, coordination and motor control. Tactile difficulties may appear as:

  • Responding negatively or emotionally to light touch or the possibility of it
  • Dislike towards haircut, nail trims, bathing, hair brushing, etc.
  • Preferring to touch versus being touched
  • Shows discomfort with textures and types of clothes
  • Rubing their hands on surfaces, people, objects, textures

Strategies include finding textures of clothing that the child prefers, whether soft and loose-fitting or tight like compression garments, or even tagless clothing; considering weighted blankets (less than 10 percent of your child’s weight); and exploring different sensations (i.e., sticky, wet, dry, rough, etc.) in a playful manner.

In all cases, talk with and listen to your child

When it comes to supporting your child, it is important to recognize their behavior is a form of communication; try to be patient and understanding towards what they are trying to tell you. Provide empathy, encourage problem-solving and advocate for your child’s needs. Talking with your child is important in helping them identify what may be bothersome and how to problem-solve so that their bodies and brains can regulate throughout the day.

Just remember, each child and their experience is unique to them. Don’t be afraid to try something one day and something else the next. Adapting to sensations takes time and patience, so offer empathy and work together to explore and adjust to all the sensations in your everyday environments.

If you have questions about your child’s health, talk to your pediatrician or find a doctor near you today.

About the author

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Ashley M. Hottman, OTD, OTR, is an occupational therapist on the outpatient pediatric team at Baylor Scott & White McLane Children's Medical Center in Temple.

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