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Many children and adults struggle with sensory sensitivity. Some of them will also have autism spectrum disorder.
Often they are highly sensitive to sounds and touch, but relatively insensitive to pain. There can also be a reduced perception of temperature.
Ordinary sensations can be intense and even painful. For example taking a shower or brushing their hair.
The sensation of food in their mouth can also be uncomfortable and there can be issues with cleaning teeth, leading to cavities and dental problems.
They may be sensitive to smells and this can add to difficulties with eating but also toileting, perhaps struggling to wipe after using the toilet or struggling to use the toilet at all leading to problems with soiling.
The most common presentation would be an extreme reaction to a sudden loud noise, for example a car backfiring as it drives by.
Others struggle with high pitched, often electrical noises, for example the hum of a fluorescent tube or the compressor on a fridge.
The hand dryer in bathrooms and the noise of the vacuum can also be difficult.
Many struggle with background noise, for example at a birthday party or a train station.
The child (or adult) may cover their ears with their hands, become irritable or angry or shut down and have to move away.
The degree to which this affects a person can vary enormously from day to day. When they are anxious or overwhelmed for other reasons the sensitivities can be more prominent.
On days when they are more relaxed, there are less demands, they will be less obvious and even absent.
The anticipation of experiencing one of these events can lead to the person isolating themselves. There can be huge amounts of anxiety when even thinking about the possibility.
Positive coping strategies that they may have learnt to use include distraction, noise cancelling headphones, zoning out, intensely focusing on something else.
It is important to recognise this issue as without support it can interfere with their education and work.
To some a hug or a cuddle is the best thing in the world.
For a child (or adult) with tactile sensitivity this can be uncomfortable and even distressing. They may pull away, stiffen up or flinch. It doesn’t mean they don’t want affection or to spend time with you.
Clothing brings its own difficulties. Tags and labels need to be cut out and only certain fabrics are acceptable. Natural fibres are often preferred with cotton and silky textures. Anything else can feel scratchy and irritating.
They may only want to wear shorts even in the winter as the feeling of fabric next to the skin is uncomfortable. They may not perceive that it’s cold and snowy outside, but still want to wear their shorts and T shirt.
They may get upset at ‘messy play’ not wanting sticky hands and finding sand and other textures difficult to tolerate.
Leggings might be worn under jeans to manage the sensation, soft clothing in manageable textures can be bought by preference and labels can be cut out. Making school aware of the issue can lead to some flexibility with uniform, for example being allowed to wear a polo top, rather than shirt and tie. Many families will buy several sizes of ‘the trousers that they will wear’ so that they can grow into them.
Taste and smell
Some children really struggle with the texture, taste and smell of food. This can become obvious from the time of weaning.
Patience is key and a child should never be forced. There are lots of different ways to make sure they receive adequate nutrition and it can improve with the right help. ‘They will eat when they are hungry’ is not particularly good advice for this group of individuals.
Offering a small plate with only a few options, to try, even just to smell or touch can often be a useful place to start. Eating whilst offering distraction such as watching TV or listening to music can help.
Again this sensitivity can fluctuate with levels of stress in other areas of the child’s life. It can be a useful marker that they are unhappy or struggling in another way and can help you notice something is wrong.
Linked to food is the sensation of smell. Some children may struggle to come down from their bedrooms when certain foods have been cooked in the kitchen. All the windows needs to be opened and the food taken outside before it can feel possible to venture downstairs. Cleaning products can be a particular problem and also the smell associate with medicines or toothpaste.
Recognising these issues can lead to a better understanding of your child. It is really important to understand they are not being naughty or seeking attention, this is a real difficulty for them.