Sensory Processing and Why it Matters for Your Child

A child’s sensory system is just as unique and individual as their personality. The sensory system is complex and begins to develop in-utero. Its job is to take information from our senses – hearing, seeing, smelling, tasting, feeling - and feed that information to our brain to help us decide how to behave or act. This job can be described as “sensory processing” and is the term for how we navigate the input from our senses to interact with our environment.

Sensory System and Development

Understanding your child’s sensory system and what they need to be the most successful in all situations can be really impactful for your child’s development. Two ways that you can assess your child’s sensory system is to see whether they are overstimulated or under-stimulated in a given situation. This can really help you become in tune with your child and improve verbal and nonverbal communication with your child.

What Does Overstimulation Look Like?

When a child's sensory system is overstimulated, they are experiencing more input than they are able to properly interpret.

Signs of Overstimulation Include:

  • Pulling away from someone, something, a smell, or a sound

  • Covering eyes or ears

  • Crying or being inconsolable

How Can I Help My Overstimulated Child?

  • Remove the source of discomfort, if and when possible

  • Giving the child time to relax or a moment alone in a private space

  • Swinging can be relaxing and is said to mimic movement in the womb, which can feel calming for a young child

  • Warn the child ahead of time if you know a non-preferred stimulus may be present and try to make accommodations to help the child feel safe (i.e. if your child hates the smell of fish and you're going to a cookout where fish may be present, let them know ahead of time and try to bring a scented object with them to calm them down)

What Does Understimulation Look Like?

When a child’s sensory system is understimulated, they are receiving less input than they want in order to feel regulated.

Signs of Understimulation Include:

  • Climbing all over the furniture or jumping on and off things

  • Pressing into you or someone else

  • Making loud noises

  • Running around and bumping into walls or furniture

How Can I Help My Understimulated Child?

  • Create "movement breaks" to get out energy

  • Use fidget toys

  • Try alternative seated options (i.e. sitting on a bouncy ball can help burn off energy in order to help your child focus while doing homework)

How Pediatric Physical Therapy Benefits Your Child

Understanding these two states and how each impacts your child’s needs can be extremely helpful to aid them in reacting to the situation to their best ability. Your child’s physical therapist can be a resource for identifying when sensory needs are limiting participation in age-appropriate activities and providing suggestions for interventions that may be beneficial.

If you notice your child is really struggling with sensory processing, they may benefit from a physical therapy evaluation with the pediatric physical therapists at Performance Physical Therapy. Request a phone consult or schedule a pediatric physical therapy evaluation today.

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