What are sensory sensitivities?
Sensory sensitivities are unusual experiences with sensory input. Humans experience sensory input through five senses: seeing, hearing/listening, touch/feeling, taste, and smell. With a sensory sensitivity, a person might experience something more intensely or less intensely than someone without a sensitivity.
For example, bright lights might make someone feel extremely on edge or anxious because they are hypersensitive to them. On the other hand, someone might feel like they need extra high wattage, bright lights to see and function everyday because they are hyposensitive to them. People with sensory sensitivities may meet the criteria for sensory processing disorder (SPD), another disorder like anxiety or ADHD, or no disorder at all.
Individuals with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may experience hypo or hyper sensitivity to different sensory input. Sensory hypersensitivities (being overly sensitive) may include tolerating only some kinds of foods, becoming unusually upset when sounds overlap or are at high volume, avoiding certain textures like sand, becoming upset at restaurants with unusual smells, or avoiding brightly-lit places like gymnasiums.
On the opposite end, sensory hyposensitivity (being sensory-seeking or under-sensitive) may look like having difficulty recognizing injury or hunger, repeatedly rubbing a soft texture on their face, having a certain part of a video/song they watch repeatedly at a loud volume (or holding the speaker to their ear), enjoy weighted blankets or being squished, or struggle to recognize clothes are on incorrectly.
Individuals with sensory sensitivities might have only hypersensitivities and hyposensitivities or a combination of both.
What therapists can treat sensory sensitivities?
There are a few different kinds of therapists to consult with regarding different types of sensory sensitivities. The main provider for many types of services is an occupational therapist (OT). OTs provide a therapy called sensory integration. This therapy helps children reorganize their experiences to sensory input. Activities may include sensory brushing, gross motor activities (whole body movement), proprioceptive activities (involving joint movement), vestibular activities (balance and spatial awareness), and more depending on the child’s needs. An OT may provide guidance for at-home activities to promote sensory integration in a “sensory diet”.
For experiences regarding feeding and food challenges, an occupational therapist and speech-language pathologist may work together to develop a plan for a child. Feeding and swallowing disorders may be a part of the challenge, which would be addressed by a speech-language pathologist. An OT would manage the sensory-based concerns. A family may start with an OT and expand the team according to their clinical recommendations.
Are sensory issues a sign of autism?
Not necessarily. Consult with a local pediatric psychologist and pediatric occupational therapist (OT) for formal evaluation of autism spectrum disorder, anxiety, ADHD, or sensory processing disorder (SPD). They will conduct a full-scale evaluation which will include observations of the child, surveys, and interviews with familiar adults in their lives. If you are in the Chicagoland area, contact The Goldman Center and Chicago Occupational Therapy to connect with psychologists and OTs, respectively.
How can I help my child manage their sensory sensitivities?
A good place to start supporting your child with sensory sensitivities is at your pediatrician’s office. Your pediatrician may recommend basic activities to integrate into your at-home routines and can connect you to local clinicians if needs extend beyond these interventions. If your child is under age 3, you can contact your local Department of Human Services office for Early Intervention services. Check our articles page for the “All About Early Intervention” article to help you get started.
Another place to start is by reaching out to a pediatric psychologist or occupational therapist directly to start the formal evaluation process. In the Chicagoland area, The Goldman Center and Chicago Occupational Therapy have trained clinicians to support your child with sensory needs.