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

Hypersensitivity and Hyposensitivity

A hallmark of SI dysfunction is inconsistent responses to sensory information. Your child may very well be oversensitive (hypersensitive) to certain types of sensory input and undersensitive (hyposensitive) to other types of input. A child with auditory sensitivity may love sounds within a certain frequency range (such as a low-frequency lawn mower) and detest sounds at a different frequency range (such as a high-frequency ringing telephone). Another way to think of it is that a child who is hypersensitive may avoid that sensation, while a child who is hyposensitive may actually seek it out because it is calming and comforting. There are also children with mixed reactivity who may be oversensitive to a sensation one day, and undersensitive to it the next day. This can be really confusing and look like a behavioral issue more than anything else. Say, one day your son craves splashing around in a bubble bath, but the next day, he absolutely refuses to step foot in it. Rather than assuming he's just being difficult, it may be that yesterday his nervous system was "organized" enough to enjoy it, but today his "disorganized" nervous system just can't tolerate it. You can't always predict how a malfunctioning nervous system is going to react from day to day – or even hour to hour – or when a new sensory challenge is going to crop up.

To make matters more confusing, children may accustom themselves to a "repulsive" sensation and suddenly develop another sensitivity. A child who finally starts to tolerate having his hair brushed, washed, and cut might suddenly find it unbearable to have clothing tags or seams touch his skin. If you previously knew nothing at all about the nuances of sensory input, having a child with sensory problems will make you hyperaware of them!

The common denominator in these sensitivities and the resulting seeking and avoiding behaviors is that these responses to sensory experiences are not completely voluntary. They are unusual neurological responses that result in unusual behaviors.

So why doesn't your child just put mind over matter and tolerate the feel of the brush against his scalp and the foam of the toothpaste in his mouth? Well, many children do attain higher tolerance as they mature. And the older we get, the more we figure out ways to adapt to please other people, to be accepted, and to get along in the world while meeting our own needs. Those of us with typical sensory integration skills put up with scratchy clothing for a business meeting or eat calamari because we don't want to embarrass our hostess, but the younger a child is, the harder it is for him to fake it.

Also, the more outside stresses a child has in his life – the demands of school, illness, lack of sleep, tension at home, hormonal fluctuations of adolescence, changes in any medications – the harder it will be for him to "buck up" and tolerate his sensory issues as well.



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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.


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