Advice Column, Assisted Learning, Education

When the World is Not Making Sense: Navigating Sensory Processing Challenges with Our Children

  • Glenoaks Remedial and Special Needs School
  • Category Advice Column, Assisted Learning, Education

Parenting is a remarkable journey filled with the joy of witnessing your child’s growth and development. One aspect of this is sensory development as children learn to engage and interact with the world around them. However, for some children, particularly those who face sensory processing difficulties, this journey comes with unique challenges. These challenges become even more intricate when they co-occur with instances of neurodivergence, such as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and Specific Learning Disorder (e.g. Dyslexia), among others.

Sensory processing is the intricate process through which the nervous system receives, interprets, and responds to sensory information from the environment. A well-regulated sensory system allows children to effectively engage with their surroundings. However, some children may experience sensory dysregulation which can lead to challenges in daily activities, interactions and learning. By recognising the signs that your child is veering toward sensory dysregulation, a proactive approach can be taken to help them effectively navigate sensory challenges and achieve a greater sense of well-being and success. 

The Complex Interplay: Sensory Processing and Co-Occurring Conditions

Children with neurodivergent conditions often experience sensory processing difficulties at a higher frequency compared to their neurotypical peers. The intricate interplay between their unique neurological wiring and sensory processing systems can result in heightened sensitivities, challenges in sensory modulation, and difficulties in effectively interpreting and responding to sensory stimuli.

Many autistic individuals experience sensory processing difficulties, which can be described as either hypersensitive (over-responsive) or hyposensitive (under-responsive) to sensory input. They may become overwhelmed by sensory stimuli and have heightened sensitivities to lights, sounds and textures. Children who are under-responsive may not react strongly to sensory input. They might appear indifferent to pain, have a high tolerance for extreme temperatures, or seem unaware of their surroundings. In both instances children may engage in repetitive sensory-seeking behaviours. These challenges can impact social interactions, communication, and behaviour regulation.

Children with ADHD may struggle with sensory regulation that leads to increased distractibility, impulsivity, and difficulty focusing. Sensory dysregulation can contribute to difficulties in maintaining attention and organisation, as well as challenges in managing emotions and behaviours.

While dyslexia primarily affects reading and language processing, it can also co-occur with sensory processing challenges. Children with dyslexia may have difficulties with auditory and visual processing, which can impact their ability to recognize and decode words accurately. Sensory dysregulation can exacerbate stress and anxiety related to reading tasks.

Signs of Sensory Dysregulation

Recognising signs of sensory dysregulation in children is a vital step toward providing support. These signs may include:

  • ïSocial challenges: Children may distance themselves from their peers or opt out of group activities as a result of feeling overwhelmed by sensory stimuli. They may try to initiate play or engage in games in ways that are misunderstood by their peers, potentially leading to negative reactions (e.g. play that is rougher than intended). Additionally, they may misinterpret social cues, leading to misunderstandings. 
  • ïImpulsivity and inattention: Behaviour may become increasingly impulsive and disorganised as dysregulation starts to manifest. This may result in conflict with others in the environment. The child’s capacity to maintain focus and attention on tasks or activities might diminish, impacting their participation and engagement.
  • ïCommunication difficulties: Sensory overload can cause communication breakdowns. Children experiencing sensory dysregulation may exhibit irritability, anxiety, or feelings of being overwhelmed, hindering their ability to effectively communicate. This may impede their ability to engage in effective and coherent communication with peers, educators and family members.  
  • ïBehavioural dysregulation: Children experiencing sensory processing difficulties are susceptible to mood swings, meltdowns, and difficulties managing emotions. Precursors to this might manifest as increased restlessness, heightened irritability, physical discomfort (e.g. headache; tummy ache) and heightened emotional sensitivity. 

Practical Strategies for Promoting Sensory Regulation

Parents play a pivotal role in helping children regulate their sensory experiences. Some strategies to consider include: 

  • ïA sensory-friendly space: create a calming and organised space where your child can retreat when feeling overwhelmed. Dim lighting, soft textures, soothing colours, reduced noise and fidget toys provide regulating input to the sensory system.  
  • ïDeep pressure and movement: Activities that offer deep pressure or resistance to movement can help regulate the tactile and proprioceptive systems. Examples of these activities include digging in a sandpit, crawling, squeezing (dough; stress ball; theraputty), stretching (theraband; body stretches) and climbing. Activities that involve rhythmic movements, like swinging, jumping on a trampoline or bouncing on a therapy ball provide regulating, vestibular input. 
  • ïPredictability and routine: Establishing consistent daily routines provides a sense of predictability and stability for your child. Visual schedules and timers can help your child anticipate transitions and activities.
  • ïSensory breaks: Teach your child techniques for self-regulation, such as deep breathing, mindfulness exercises, or simple stretches. Encourage breaks in a quiet, calming space when your child begins to show signs of dysregulation.
  • ïBreak tasks down: Break down challenging tasks into smaller, manageable segments to reduce sensory overload and frustration.
  • ïEncourage your child to engage in activities that align with their sensory preferences, promoting self-awareness and self-regulation. This can be done with an occupational therapist specialised in sensory processing who can develop an individualised sensory diet to address your child’s specific needs. 
  • ïShare the strategies that work and collaborate with other people in your child’s life so that sensory challenges can be successfully managed in all contexts. 

Sensory processing and regulation are fundamental aspects of a child’s development that significantly influence their ability to navigate and interact with the world around them. By understanding the signs of sensory dysregulation and implementing effective strategies, you can help your child develop the necessary skills to manage sensory experiences and thrive in various environments. Remember that every child is unique, and the journey towards sensory regulation may require patience, flexibility, and ongoing support. A collaborative approach involving parents, educators, therapists, and medical professionals can empower your child to develop effective sensory processing skills and thrive despite their challenges. Your dedication and advocacy as a parent contribute significantly to your child’s well-being and future success.

Written by Julia Hutcheon – Occupational Therapist – Glenoaks Remedial and Vocational School

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