Understanding Sensory Defensiveness

Feb 13, 2019 | 0 comments

Updated April 25, 2024

Does your child become irritated by wearing clothes? Do they react strongly to smells or sounds?

Are they a picky eater? Or do they avoid eye contact or moving their head upside down?

These are all common signs of a child with sensory defensiveness.

What is Sensory Defensiveness?

Sensory defensiveness is a misinterpretation by the nervous system, where regular sensory information is flagged as dangerous or harmful. This causeschild covering ears has sensory defensiveness disorder in Parramatta the body to go into a high arousal state or ‘fright, flight or fight’ mode. This can also result in:

  • Disruptions to sleep
  • Social and emotional difficulties
  • Anxiety or stress
  • Distortions in processing pain (decreased awareness or over-sensitivity)
  • ‘Shutdown’ caused by an overload of sensory information
  • Avoiding certain sensory experiences e.g. preschool where there are lots of children,
    or bathrooms where there are loud hand dryers

What Does Sensory Defensive Disorder Look Like in Children?

There are varying degrees of sensory defensiveness, from mild where a child is able to function typically but may overreact to a few sensory experiences, to severe, where sensory experiences disrupt every aspect of their life. For example, a child may perceive tags on clothing to be dangerous to the body.

Feeling in the high arousal state has been likened to walking through a dark car park late at night, with strange sounds and shadows. Your body flags this situation as dangerous, there is an increase in adrenaline, and you are ready to fight or flee if anything happens.

What Are Some Sensory Defensiveness Symptoms?

Sensory defensiveness is a spectrum and people may experience symptoms to varying degrees. It can affect social, emotional, and behavioral areas of a child’s life. 

  • Tactile defensiveness might look like a preference or dislike of certain fabrics, tags, or clothing textures. Your child may dislike being touched or hugged or responds emotionally or behaviourally when touched unexpectedly. They may also resist daily grooming such as hair brushing, teeth cleaning, face washing
  • Auditory defensiveness is a sensitivity to sound. Your child may cover their ears when around loud noises or be easily startled by sudden sounds. 
  • Olfactory defensiveness is a sensitivity to smells and your child may find certain smells overwhelming or unpleaseant.
  • Gustatory defensiveness involves how food tastes and your child may have a limited diet in what they are choosing to eat because they dislike the taste or texture of certain foods. 
  • Visual defensiveness is an aversion to light or visual clutter. Your child may find lights or busy patterns overwhelming or may avoid eye contact.
  • Vestibular defensiveness is a sensitivity to movement and your child may dislike spinning, swinging, or riding in cars.

What is an Effective Sensory Defensiveness treatment approach?

Children do not ‘outgrow’ sensory defensiveness, but may find ways of coping as they get older. Therefore, it is important to incorporate therapy and treatment.

The treatment approach for sensory defensiveness is to provide the body with sensory input to reduce arousal levels to an ‘optimal level of arousal’, which is where kids are able to best learn and play. This is achieved through a sensory diet that is comprised of specific timed activities throughout the day. A key activity within the sensory diet, is the Therapressure Program (developed by Patricia Wilbarger) which involves using a brush to provide deep pressure massage and then followed up with joint compressions.  We may also recommend weighted blankets or compression garments, deep massage, wrapping in a blanket or other therapeutic touch to support sensory regulation.

Interventions that target muscles and skin (e.g. Therapressure brushing), help with internal comfort to assist with getting their system out of that ‘dark car park’ or high arousal state.

What Should I do if My Child is Showing Sensory Defensiveness Behaviours?

If you suspect your child may be displaying sensory defensive behaviours, consult an occupational therapist to assess and assist with the therapy process. It is important to consult a professional with training prior to starting the Therapressure brushing program.

 You may wish to see a doctor or OT if the sensory issue in your child:

  • Is impacting how they are living their life each day
  • Is displaying symptoms that change drastically quite suddenly
  • Is having reaction that are difficult to manage
  • Is affecting your child’s learning

Contact Our Occupational Therapy Clinic In Parramatta to Assess Your Child for Sensory Defensive Disorder

If you’re noticing signs and symptoms of sensory defensiveness that is affecting your child’s daily life, book an appointment to see one of our Occupational Therapists for an assessment. We will work with you on an appropriate sensory diet to proactively support your child’s sensory systems.