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

Sensory Problems Affect Every Aspect of Life

How do sensory issues impact your child from day to day? Of course, life is a multisensory experience and most children with SI dysfunction have trouble with more than one sensory system. For the sake of simplicity, though, let's just consider just one sense: touch.

Tactile Oversensitivity

A child who is tactile oversensitive will have difficulty in one or more of these areas:

  • Sensory exploration. She might avoid making physical contact with other people and things in the environment, leading to impoverished sensory experiences and social isolation. A child uncomfortable with touch may not feel safe and comforted by a parent's hug. A child who avoids cold, wet textures won't discover the delight of making a snowman.
  • Emotional and social. He may have trouble behaving according to social norms, may isolate himself from others, and become aggressive or depressed. A child who dislikes having other kids brush up against him or bump into him might avoid getting physically close and refuse to stand on line or hold another child's hand as requested. He may also refuse to participate during group activities by pushing other kids away or withdrawing into himself.
  • Motor. She may be unwilling to try new fine and gross motor activities such as cutting with scissors or swimming, and have poor physical coordination. She may have trouble with motor planning, that is, doing physical things in sequence (such as holding both feet together while jumping, and landing with both feet together).
  • Cognitive. Because he is distracted by his need to avoid tactile input, he may show attention and learning deficits. An infant may avoid learning to hold his bottle because he is distressed by how it feels in his hand. A teenager may be so distracted by the possibility that a rowdy classmate will bother him that he can't follow what the teacher is saying.
  • Speech-language. If she avoids interaction with others, she may have poor communication skills. If she has tactile issues inside her mouth she may have trouble speaking and making her ideas, needs, and wants known.
  • Eating. If he avoids certain food textures, he may become malnourished – often in subtle ways, as we shall see later on. If he hates the feel of eating with utensils, he may refuse to eat at all unless he can eat with his fingers. He may avoid social situations where he feels pressured to eat foods he finds repulsive, or even act out or have a meltdown when faced with this possibility.
  • Grooming and dressing. She may refuse to brush her teeth or hair, use shampoo, or shower. She might insist on wearing clothing that is comfortable and familiar even if it is very dirty or inappropriate for the occasion or weather.


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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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