Sensory Responsiveness: What's Normal and What Isn't

We're not big believers in the term normal. All it really means is that something falls within the norm, meaning it is average statistically. Of course, as a parent, you want all the things you find delightful about your child to be better than average or even extraordinary, which, of course, would fall under the definition of abnormal. So, you might want to toss out that normal label altogether.

While it's typical to have some sensory issues, kids with SI dysfunction have much more trouble with sensory processing. They usually show many of the following behavioral symptoms, which can interfere with daily activities and learning:

  • oversensitivity or undersensitivity to touch, sights, sounds, movement, tastes, or smells
  • high distractibility, with problems paying attention and staying focused on a task
  • an unusually high or low activity level
  • frequent tuning out or withdrawing
  • intense, out-of-proportion reactions to challenging situations and unfamiliar environments
  • impulsiveness, with little or no self-control
  • difficulty transitioning from activity to activity or situation to situation
  • rigidity and inflexibility at times
  • clumsiness and carelessness
  • discomfort in group situations
  • social or emotional difficulties
  • developmental and learning delays and acting silly or immature
  • awkwardness, insecurity, or feeling "stupid" or "weird"
  • trouble handling frustration, tendency to tantrum longer and more intensely than other children do, and more difficulty returning to a calm state
  • problems transitioning from an alert, active state to a calm, rested state (for example, difficulty falling asleep or waking, or doing a quiet activity after being very active or vice versa)
Lots of kids show these signs for lots of reasons. Some of these behaviors are appropriate at certain ages. Most toddlers are pretty impulsive – that's the terrific but terrible twos. But a four-year-old who acts on every little impulse is a different story. A strong dislike of wool clothing, discomfort making eye contact with strangers, or fear of a goat that bleats loudly and unexpectedly at the petting zoo fall within the range of so-called typical sensory sensitivity for a child so long as these sensory experiences do not interfere with daily function. A child with sensory problems usually has maladaptive responses to everyday situations, consistently showing behaviors that are not age-appropriate and that can't just be dismissed.


From Raising a Sensory Smart Child by Lindsey Biel, M.A., OTR/L and Nancy Peske. Copyright © 2005. Used by arrangement with Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

If you'd like to buy this book, click here or on the book cover.

stay connected

Sign up for our free email newsletters and receive the latest advice and information on all things parenting.

Enter your email address to sign up or manage your account.

Facebook icon Twitter icon Follow Us on Pinterest

editor’s picks

earth day

celebrate our
planet with
these activities
and crafts.



Healthy Smile Checklist for Kids
Have better dental check-ups with this free printable checklist that helps keep your child flossing, brushing, and smiling! Brought to you by Philips Sonicare.

Kindergarten Readiness App
It's kindergarten registration time! Use this interactive kindergarten readiness checklist, complete with fun games and activities, to practice the essential skills your child needs for this next big step. Download the Kindergarten Readiness app today!

Top 10 Earth Day Books for Children
Celebrate the environment by reading some of these great children's books about Earth Day, recycling, planting trees, and all things green!

Prom Dress Trends for 2014
Check out 2014 prom dress trends inspired by celebrities’ red carpet looks, but with a price tag under $100!