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Making sense of sensory defensiveness

Updated: Mar 8, 2021

“Ouch!! That hurts’’, ‘’I don’t want to wear that!!”, “It's pasta or nothing!!’’

Does this seem familiar? Why do some children react so negatively to everyday requests? They won’t brush their teeth, keep to a minimal wardrobe and eat such a limited diet? Is it preference, behaviour or is there something more going on?

For children and adults who experience Sensory Defensiveness (SD), everyday experiences can be a tough challenge. As parents of children who experience defensiveness, it can be exhausting. You may pre-empt situations to prevent a ‘melt down’. Your kid may have strict and controlled routines or become easily overwhelmed in busy environments. You look at his/her friends and they are throwing themselves off the indoor play equipment, whilst your child just wants to go home.

What is sensory defensiveness? It’s simply an over-activation of our protective senses (Wilbarger & Willbarger) 2014. Our senses are there to alert us to danger and enable us to react to protect ourselves from harm. This is really great when we need it; we want our kids to protect themselves from falling, or not to eat something harmful. But what happens that we start getting these reactions to everyday experiences? Our brains are not working to inhibit sensations efficiently, kids can seem alert and ready for action.

How do we know when sensory defensiveness is present? As with all conditions SD occurs on a continuum. For some people, it just means making small changes to the environment, and hardly impacts at all. For others, it means that a lot of areas of their life are challenging. For example, a trip to the shops is unbearable, your child withdraws from circle time in Crèche, and hates showers/baths. SD can occur in one or all of the senses. Tactile defensiveness for example can mean messy play, baking or light touch are off limits. The secondary causes of SD can result in anxiety, stress, problems concentrating and social avoidance. In order to manage these symptoms we start to put in place coping mechanisms; so for example, we only allow our child to wear long-sleeved clothing, cut out tags, wear socks without seams, talk through tasks, or learn to seek pressure touch following an aversive sensory experience.

We don’t know exactly why this type of sensory modulation disorder occurs, but we do know that it’s pretty common, under-recognised and misunderstood.

The great thing is that it is treatable!

If you have a child with sensory defensiveness, it's worthwhile having a think about how much it may be affecting them and to evaluate your own sensory processing.

An OT assessment is really important in taking the journey to treatment, but in the meantime you can take steps to help your child by engaging daily in deep pressure play and resistance activities. If your child is young enough, you can be their climbing frame!

Never force your child to endure an unwanted or overwhelming sensory experience. Talk to your child about sensory defensiveness and seek advice.

Natalie Halloran

BSc (Hons) Occupational Therapy AOTI CORU

This article originally appeared in MummyPages.

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