Sensory sensitivity triggers
Professor Sheen says parents are usually quick to identify exactly what will trigger their sensory sensitive child, whether it be lights, sounds or how some fabrics feel against their skin.
“Parents typically report distress in certain sensory environments, for example loud cafes, or avoidance, such as refusing to wear certain clothes. They’ll also notice changes in behaviour, for example, putting their hands over their ears as indicators of sensory sensitivity,” Associate Professor Sheen says.
“And many normally developing children will experience sensory sensitivity. These children will generally outgrow the sensitivity and it rarely acts as a barrier to their engagement with the world.”
Professor Sheen says for individuals with clinical conditions such as ASD, sensory sensitivities tend to be more impactful, last longer and result in feelings of stress and anxiety.
“In these circumstances I would suggest that parents need to act as advocates for their children to reduce the challenges and accommodate to the needs of the child wherever possible,” Professor Sheen says.
“But they also need to help the child to accommodate to the environment wherever necessary. Graded exposure can be useful to assist.”
Raising a sensory sensitive child
Melanie is the mother of a four-year-old boy with sensory sensitivities. She says it’s heartening to see that awareness of the condition has greatly improved over the years.
“For example, at Christmas time, our local shopping centre had a special time slot for a Santa visit for kids with sensory sensitivities. This meant I could take my son to see Santa, knowing there wouldn’t be any bright lights or loud music that might trigger an upsetting episode,” Melanie says.
“I first suspected my son had sensory sensitivities when he was around 18 months old because he’d have huge tantrums around almost any noise – even if his elder brother was just calling his name.
“He is also very sensitive to any clothing that is too tight and even being in the car is difficult as he will react to the radio or even when I put the car’s indicators on. It is easier now that we all know his triggers and can manage his reactions in the times that it’s not possible to stop a sound that upsets him.
“It’s not easy to have a child with sensory sensitivities but I like to think that I am proof that it is manageable once you’re fully aware of what is going on.”
There are additional challenges for parents of some sensory sensitive children when they start going to early learning and preschool.
Associate Professor Sheen suggests parents stay in close contact with carers and teachers so they’re in the best position to manage the child’s issues.
“In cases where the sensory concerns are more significant and long lasting, they may impact a child's integration into environments such as school and childcare. Education facilitates will make reasonable accommodations to support students learning so it is important to work with your care team to identify your child’s sensory triggers and develop a collaborative and consistent plan,” Professor Sheen says.
“Psychologists often work with sensory sensitive children and their families, discussing ways to accommodate to their triggers and/or needs or develop graded exposure plans to slowly increase their tolerance of specific sensory experiences. Occupational Therapists can also be involved in understanding a child’s sensory profile and their specific triggers and/or needs.”