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What are "Sensory Issues" and Does My Child Need Occupational Therapy?

Updated: Sep 8, 2022

By Sara Wilbert OTR/L ASDCS CYT


Parents often ask me "do you work on "sensory"? I think my child may have sensory issues." Having the diagnosis of true Sensory Processing Disorder versus "sensory issues" can be very confusing for parents. "Sensory" seems to be the new buzz word lately for any child who is having trouble focusing, staying still or regulating their emotions. So then the question is, will occupational therapy solve these concerns.


The sensory system of a child continues to develop and mature on average up to the age of 8. Young children need to move and explore their environment in order to learn how to process sensory information. Our society is expecting children to regulate their emotions, stay still for long periods of time and focus on learning long before they are physically and developmentally ready to do so. Development occurs in a sequence and when development is forced forward many skills and experiences are missed.


We all have sensory preferences. Even as adults we like certain textures, foods, music, etc. Some preferences are stronger than others. If a child is having difficulty calming themself when they become upset, using sensory tools can be helpful but it isn't actual "treatment" for Sensory Processing Disorder. As humans we all benefit from sensory strategies for calming. Some people light candles or smell essential oils. Massages and warm baths are calming.


The question we need to ask before making a referral for therapy or treatment, "Is the child having difficulty processing sensory information internally (hunger, sleep, toileting, movement, energy level) or within the environment (taste, touch, sound, visual, smell)?" and "Are these processing difficulties impacting their ability to develop skills or affecting their ability to participate in their daily activities?" If you reported yes to any of the above questions then an occupational therapy evaluation will be beneficial.


Below is an example of some signs to look for in a child who may be struggling with sensory processing:

  • Avoidance of specific sensory experiences that include smells, textures, tastes, sound, movement, etc. When the child is exposed to these specific/consistent experiences they will have a meltdown, become overwhelmed and their behavior may become out of control.

  • The child appears clumsy, falls/trips often, difficulty manipulating objects, difficulty moving their body smoothly through space.

  • Seems to be overly energetic or sleepy with difficulty regulating their level of alertness.

  • The child may isolate themself from other children or prefer not to socialize.

  • The child often tries to control the environment or the behavior of others. May appear bossy in social situations.

  • A child who is in continuous motion, seeking out touch, crashing with their body, climbing and jumping more than children their age.

  • Picky eating and mealtimes that lead to stress, crying or tantrums.

Sensory processing difficulties are often seen in conjunction with common diagnoses such as Autism, ADHD, developmental disabilities, Down Syndrome and premature birth. However, they can be identified in all children as well without another diagnosis. Supporting a child's developing sensory system is necessary for avoiding longer term sensory issues that can continue into adulthood. Sensory play such as climbing, jumping, crawling and tactile experiences are necessary activities for all children to help them develop the skills needed for school, play and learning.


If you suspect your child may have sensory processing difficulties that are impacting their ability to participate in the daily routine, an occupational therapy evaluation may be beneficial. Always discuss your concerns with your pediatrician to determine whether an OT referral is needed.


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