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 causes 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

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 is the treatment approach?

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

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.

If you suspect your child may be displaying sensory defensive behaviors, 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.