Imagine living a life on ‘high alert!’ Your body constantly perceiving the world as a dangerous place and the perception of normal stimuli and everyday occurrences are perceived as stressful situations. Living a life where auditory, visual, olfactory, proprioceptive and tactile stimuli are perceived as noxious whether they are threatening or not… This is how a child with sensory defensiveness perceives and experiences the world. They are constantly trying to make sense of their world and are trying to reduce their perceived stress in what they would describe as ‘scary or unpleasant situations’.
Every individual has the ability to sense potential danger. We use our senses to tell us if we are going to fall, if there is a cockroach crawling up or leg or if there is smoke in the air. In these situations we use or senses and respond appropriately to protect ourselves from these dangerous or scary situations. Children with sensory defensiveness are constantly stuck in what their body perceives as ’dangerous situations’. They tend to respond to harmless situations and stimuli as if they are dangerous or even painful. They may exhibit patterns of anxiety, stress, distractibility, fear, aggression, avoidance or sensory seeking. These behaviours are often misidentified as emotionally based.
With sensory defensiveness a child can present as mild, moderate or severe. We need to look for tactile, auditory and visual symptoms, oral tactile symptoms (avoidance of food textures and things around the mouth), gravitational insecurities (fear of changes in position or movement), postural insecurities (fear of certain movement based activities) as well as smell and taste aversions. In children with mild sensory defensiveness, they are often described as picky, oversensitive and touchy. They may over react to a few sensory experiences. These children often go undetected and can adapt to the demands of life. In moderate cases, two or more areas of the child’s life would be affected. They will often present with difficulties when confronted with change and developing social relations are often difficult. In severe cases of sensory defensiveness, every aspect of the child’s life is disrupted with some areas being more affected than others.
Now picture how a child with even mild sensory defensiveness would react to a classroom situation. They have no control over the stimuli that they are presented with and are expected to react to ‘scary’ and ‘stressful’ situations in the same way that children without sensory defensiveness would act. These children with sensory defensiveness are often children in the classroom situation who are described as fidgety, the child who hides under the desk or looks for a safe spot in the corner and the child who reacts behaviourally to a loud sound or an innocent touch from a peer. It’s essential that we understand where their behaviours are stemming from. They are often described as the children with behavioural difficulties and the ones who are constantly disruptive in a classroom setting, when all they need is the sensory support and the support to make sense of the world in the way that they perceive it.