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Senses - What it is

Sensory Defensiveness In Children

Each of us has the ability to sense potential danger. We are able to respond to these events with an appropriate amount of defense. Some people have a tendency to respond to certain harmless sensations as if they were dangerous or painful. This is called "sensory defensiveness".

What Is Sensory Defensiveness?

Sensory defensiveness is an over-activation of our protective senses. It is a tendency to react negatively or with alarm to sensations that are generally considered harmless or non-irritating. In children with sensory defensiveness, their clothes may feel like spiders on the skin and a flight of stairs may seem like a cliff to them. Common symptoms may include over-sensitivity or over-reaction to light or unexpected touch, sudden movement, high-pitched noises and certain smells.

Sensory defensiveness results in varying degrees of stress and anxiety with each child. The child with sensory defensiveness may perceive the world as dangerous, alarming or at the very least irritating. Children with sensory defensiveness can be described as sometimes over-active, emotional or sensory-avoiding. Learned patterns and habits are often developed around avoiding disrupting sensory events or seeking out sensation that might restore comfort. When sensory defensiveness dominates a child's behaviour, parents or caregivers may find it increasingly difficult to manage the child. For example, the child may frequently hit or bite other children at school, throw temper tantrums during outings or destroy toys and books

Types Of Sensory Defensiveness

Each child with sensory defensiveness develops his own set of behaviours. These are usually a combination of sensory avoidance and sensory seeking behaviours. There may be defensiveness to one or many types of sensations. Although it is not possible to list all the symptoms of sensory defensiveness, the following is a list of common symptoms that can be attributed to each of the sensory systems.

  • Tactile Defensiveness: Children with tactile defensiveness avoid letting people touch them and would rather touch others instead. They frequently fuss or resist hair washing or cutting. They may scream or throw a tantrum during baths/showers or when having their clothes changed. They often do not like to get their hands or feet dirty. Some may bump or crash into things on purpose as a way of seeking sensations that make themselves feel better. Others appear under-responsive to touch or pain.
  • Oral Defensiveness: Some children dislike or avoid certain textures or types of food. They may be over -sensitive to food of different temperatures or taste, avoid putting objects in their mouths and / or intensely dislike brushing their teeth.
  • Gravitational Insecurity: This appears to be an irrational fear of change in position or movement. These children are often fearful of having their feet leave the ground, or head tipped backwards e.g. when sitting on swings or when attempting climbing frames at the playground. This is often fear and avoidance of movement activities like jumping, hopping or climbing up and down stairs.
  • Visual Defensiveness: This may involve over-sensitivity to light and visual distractibility. They may startle more easily or avert their eyes and avoid eye contact with others.
  • Auditory Defensiveness: This reflects an over-sensitivity to certain sounds and fearful responses to noises like vacuum cleaners, motors, fire-alarms etc. Children sometimes make excessive amounts of noise to block out sound.
  • Others: Other symptoms can include unusual sensitivities to smell.

Where Can You Get Help?

Occupational therapists have successfully identified and treated sensory defensiveness for many years. It is important that the diagnosis be made by a knowledgeable therapist through a careful sensory history review.

If your child displays some or all of the symptoms, and your daily routines are severely affected by the child's behaviour, you may wish to bring your child to see the occupational therapist for an assessment.

To consult an occupational therapist at KKH's Department of Child Development or Rehabilitation department, you will need a referral letter from your KKH doctor.

Adapted from Patricia Wilbarger, MEd, OTR, FAOTA and Julia Leigh Wilbarger, MS, OTR.

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The information provided is not intended as medical advice. Terms of use. Information provided by SingHealth