The buzz about ‘sensory’: Helping kids make sense of their senses
The world is full of so many sensations for us to experience. It’s what makes life exciting!
When you hear a health care provider use the term ‘sensory,’ they’re referring to all the sensations our bodies encounter, understand and respond to on a daily basis.
There are seven sensory systems in the human body:
- Visual (sense of vision)
- Tactile (sense of touch)
- Auditory (sense of sound)
- Olfactory (sense of smell)
- Gustatory (sense of taste)
- Vestibular (sense of movement related to our head)
- Proprioception (sense of movement related to our body)
When one or more of these systems is over or under sensitive to sensory input, it can cause challenges.
“Every person is unique, and that means every sensory system is, too! It’s why not everyone loves a roller coaster and why some people can’t get enough spicy foods,” said Sarah Phillips, occupational therapist at our Petersburg Therapy Center. “These types of differences are personal and appropriate, and having a preference doesn’t necessarily interfere with our day to day. Sensory becomes a concern when there are certain sensations kids struggle to receive, understand or respond to, negatively impacting participation in things like school, play and self-care.”
What are common sensory issues in kids?
It’s normal for kids to have nuances in how they react to certain activities, foods or other circumstances. Each child perceives the world in a way unique to their body and their sensory system. It’s when their responses begin to interfere with their ability to accomplish daily tasks or appropriately interact with the world around them that concerns arise.
Parents and caregivers may notice certain repeated scenarios that could indicate a sensory issue. These might include a child:
- Refusing to wear clothing with tags or more rigid construction (something like jeans)
- Becoming distressed at sounds other kids seem to get used to (fire alarm at school, automatic hand dryer in public restroom, loud gym or cafeteria)
- Avidly avoiding play activities that involve getting their hands or skin dirty
- Struggling to tolerate having their hair washed or water in their face
- Constantly touching objects or people around them
- Eating a diet limited to certain food textures (only wants crunchy things, no lumpy foods, etc.)
Seeking help for sensory concerns
If you notice sensory issues that are troublesome for your child, share your questions and concerns with their pediatrician. The pediatrician may recommend an evaluation with an occupational therapist to help better understand your child’s needs. Once the occupational therapist can gather information about how your child is processing sensations, they will provide opportunities to explore and challenge these sensory systems to help you child’s brain and nervous system respond in a more organized way.
Since kids’ primary “occupation” is playing, therapy uses fun, play-focused approaches to helping them better interact with their environments at home, school and in the community.