Sensory Processing Issues Explained

Dramatic mood swings and tantrums

What parents often notice first is odd behaviors and wild mood swings, strange at best, upsetting at worst. Often it’s an outsized reaction to a change in environment — a radical, inexplicable shift in the child’s behavior.

For instance, a first-grader may do fine in a quiet setting with a calm adult. But place that child in a grocery store filled with an overload of visual and auditory stimulation and you might have the makings of an extreme tantrum, one that’s terrifying for both the child and parent.

“These kids’ temper tantrums are so intense, so prolonged, so impossible to stop once they’ve started, you just can’t ignore it,” notes Nancy Peske, whose son Cole struggles with sensory issues. Peske is coauthor with occupational therapist Lindsey Biel, who worked with Cole, of Raising a Sensory Smart Child.

Fight-or-flight response

Another response to being overwhelmed is to flee. If a child dashes out across the playground or parking lot, oblivious to the danger, Peske says that’s a big red flag that he may be heading away from something upsetting, which may not be apparent to the rest of us, or toward an environment or sensation that will calm his system. Or a child might become aggressive when in sensory overload, she says. “They’re actually having a neurological ‘panic’ response to everyday sensations the rest of us take for granted.”

Some kids on the spectrum are known to wander to water, too often with deadly results. One theory is that water offers input they crave because of sensory issues. “Not all sensory kids do this,” Peske says, “but most gravitate toward the sensations and environments they find calming or stimulating. Their self-regulation is not great, so safety takes a back seat to their need to get that input or that calming experience of being in water.”

Children, teens and adults with sensory challenges experience either over-sensitivity (hypersensitivity) or under-sensitivity (hyposensitivity).

What are sensory processing issues?

Sensory processing difficulties were first identified by occupational therapist Dr. A. Jean Ayres. In the 1970s, Dr. Ayres introduced the idea that certain people’s brains can’t do what most people take for granted: process all the information coming in through seven — not the traditional five — senses to provide a clear picture of what’s happening both internally and externally.

Along with touch, hearing, taste, smell and sight, Dr. Ayres added the “internal” senses of body awareness (proprioception) and movement (vestibular). When the brain can’t synthesize all this information coming in simultaneously, “It’s like a traffic jam in your head,” Peske says, “with conflicting signals quickly coming from all directions, so that you don’t know how to make sense of it all.”

What are these two “extra” senses in Dr. Ayres’ work?

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