By Romy Kruger
Sensory defensiveness disorder is a term being used more and more to help us understand the complex and sometimes inexplicable behaviours in our children. But what exactly does it mean?
Lets break it down: Sensory refers to the senses sight, sound, touch, taste and smell. However it also looks at 2 more “invisible senses” called the vestibular and proprioceptive sense. Defensiveness means you are likely to have a defensive or adverse reaction to something. So essentially, it means you are not able to easily tolerate input being interpreted through your senses.
The vestibular sense refers to where you are in relation to gravity and is linked to movement. Vestibular receptors are located in the ear. The proprioceptive sense gives you awareness of your body in space and it helps you to plan your body for movements. Proprioceptive receptors are located in the muscles and joints.
Some children can experience sensory defensiveness in only one of their senses whilst some may experience it in more than one or even all of them. This makes the world a scary and unpredictable place.
What does the sensory defensive child look like?
A child who experiences sensory defensiveness can appear to be quite anxious, often repeatedly questioning what is next in the daily routine, what’s for dinner, what time is the next extra mural and so forth.
A child will often try to control whatever he can in his environment, whether it be in social interactions, how his toys are packed away, which route you take driving home and frequently have a limited array of foods he will eat. This can be so extreme that a child will be able to notice if you or someone else has cooked his favourite meal even though you have both followed the same recipe.
A child who is defensive to sound can often be seen covering his ears in response to loud sounds, accusing you of shouting at him when you may be only slightly raising your voice, having melt downs in noisy environments such as markets or malls. A child who is over sensitive to sound may struggle to cope in a noisy classroom environment and thus become withdrawn or act up and get into trouble whereas at home, in a naturally quieter environment, these behaviours are never noticed.
A child with tactile and proprioceptive defensiveness may avoid all kinds of messy play activities, complaining that any light touch and affection hurts or that certain clothing fabrics are too itchy and scratchy. He may have difficulty standing in close proximity to others, this may have a great impact when needing to line up at school or at the grocery store. This child may also appear to be a bit clumsy. Having an under developed tactile and proprioceptive system will impact the child’s knowledge of his own body and thus make it hard to plan more complex movements. Tactile defensiveness is often closely linked to the fussy eaters mentioned above as they experience oral sensitivity. This can be to flavour, texture or temperature.
A child with vestibular sensitivity may experience fear or discomfort when his feet lift off the ground, when he is laid back for a nappy change or when his body position is moved too suddenly. This child may avoid play equipment such as swings or merry go rounds and will not enjoy rough and tumble play. This child may also really struggle in swimming lessons as lying back in the water may make him feel too uncomfortable. Motion sickness may also be an issue when there is sensitivity in the vestibular system.
A child often does not know what his own sensory triggers are and thus appears to be misbehaving or having a melt down for no reason. Often a child is exposed to many triggers throughout the day which, although he is able to tolerate, they push him closer and closer to breaking point. Then by the time the child comes home from school, something small and seemingly insignificant can be the straw that breaks the camels back and really results in things falling apart. This is often very confusing and frustrating for parents. It means that there are days where a child seems to have no issue with something yet on another day he cannot tolerate it at all.
If you suspect that your child is experiencing sensory sensitivity contact a sensory integration trained occupational therapist. There is a lot which can be done to help your child feel more comfortable in his own skin and thus cope better with the sensory stimuli in his world.