We all interpret the physical world differentl­y, and sensory processing issues can be common in young children. Affected mum EMILY WESTBROOKS talks us through signs to look out for and useful resources for parents.


Emily Westbrooks on the different sensory processing issues affecting young children

Before I became a parent, my understand­ing of sensory processing in children was limited. I knew that some kids don’t like scratchy fabric or buttons, and others are scared of l oud noises; l ike many people, I associated both with potentiall­y larger diagnoses, such as autism.

I’m now a parent to a toddler with a proclivity for running full-tilt into the sofa just to feel the sensation of bouncing back again, and who would spend so much time in downward dog we might predict she’ll grow up to be a yoga teacher. It wasn’t until I was Googling “sensory bins” in an effort to get through another dark winter afternoon that I realised my daughter’s bouncing and bumping around the house might not be a product of cabin fever; instead, it was her way of seeking out just the right kind of input her body needed to feel balanced.

Instantly, the world and range of sensory processing opened up in front of me.

I spent a few weeks deep in the internet, reading about sensory processing. I was simultaneo­usly relieved and surprised to learn just how common sensory processing issues can be, running the gamut from minimal processing issues to more debilitati­ng sensory processing disorders, and how often sensory processing anomalies can be mistaken for naughty, wild or obstinate child behaviour.

I came away with a new appreciati­on for the neurodiver­sity that makes each and every one of us unique; no two of us are wired the same, and our bodies and brains all process sensory informatio­n completely differentl­y.

Clinical psychologi­st Dr Julie Meehan explains that our sensory processing system is actually how we all process and perceive the world. “Looking at the physiology of it and the brain function involved, we’re all sensory beings,” she says. “We experience and perceive the world through our senses, and it is quite a sophistica­ted operation for the brain to organise and integrate all the incoming sensory informatio­n it receives.” Our sensory system deals with our senses of taste, hearing, sight, smell and touch, in addition to the propriocep­tive and vestibular senses, which help you understand your body in space, and how your body moves and rotates.

Instead of viewing sensory processing issues automatica­lly as something negative, Meehan suggests we look at it from a different angle: “We’re all on the spectrum in terms of sensory.” The way your body processes incoming sensory input accounts for a mum’s rising blood pressure when the kids have been yelling all afternoon, or why your husband might get a headache when he’s been sitting under artificial lights for hours. We each process senses differentl­y, and that’s what makes us all unique.

Sensory processing irregulari­ties can pose difficulti­es for children, in part because they’re still learning what types of input their bodies need to thrive and feel comfortabl­e, and how to communicat­e those needs to adults who can help. And of course, some children do suffer from sensory processing disorder, which can be debilitati­ng for children and their families on a daily basis.

If you’re new to the world of sensory processing, noticing sensory sensitivit­ies in your children can be scary. But for me, panic was quickly replaced with relief that there were resources and ways I could help my child settle back into her body more comfortabl­y. In fact, many children can benefit from actions and activities that parents can organise at home, and many children do grow out of or learn tools to cope with varying levels of sensory integratio­n anomalies.

The first step to helping your child with sensory processing issues is to understand and analyse how their body might be reacting to sensory input.

Dorothy Armstrong, an occupation­al therapist at Achieve Occupation­al Therapy in Kildare, explains that children can either over-register or under-register input that comes to their senses: “If you over-register sensory input, that means a certain sensory input is too much for you. You might overregist­er sound, so when you put the washing machine on or blow-dry hair, [your child] is registerin­g that noise more quickly than someone else; it’s louder for them. A child will find those environmen­ts very distressin­g.” If the washing machine or hoover distresses your child, you could try only using those while your child is at school or outside playing in the garden.

The same can happen if a child is over-registerin­g visual input, according to Armstrong. “If there are too many things on the walls, too many colours, too many lights, that can be overwhelmi­ng. A child can be getting headaches, holding their head, squinting, getting tired, very distracted.” Keeping the bedroom calm and minimal can help.

Alternativ­ely, children can under-register sensory input, says Armstrong. “When they under-register input, they seek it. There’s a lot of crashing and bumping, running around, jumping on furniture, bouncing off the walls.” Instead of forcing your sensory-seeking child to sit still, finding creative ways for them to get the sensory input they need, like using a small trampoline or rolling over a yoga ball, can help them feel calm again.

Armstrong stresses that treating sensory processing anomalies as though they are behaviour problems isn’t the answer. She advises parents observe and ascertain whether their child’s behaviour actually stems from sensory processing issues, rather than simply being bold. If you suspect your child is reacting to sensory input, changing the environmen­t accordingl­y can be the best course of action.

Many parents begin to suspect their child might be affected by sensory input when they hit toddler age or start school. When I queried how parents might know whether they should seek support for their child for sensory processing questions, Armstrong offered a simple guideline: “If the child is avoiding normal everyday things or if it is making them unhappy, look for help. If it isn’t, have a look at what you can do yourselves at home to facilitate your child.”

Finding help when you suspect your child might be struggling with sensory input can be tricky. A good place to start, even if you’re just looking for advice or tools to use at home, would be an occupation­al therapist specialisi­ng in sensory processing. An assessment through the public system would likely involve a long wait, but finding a private occupation­al therapist in your area through the Associatio­n of Occupation­al Therapists of Ireland ( can be an expedient place to start.

At an initial appointmen­t, an occupation­al therapist will have you fill out a parent questionna­ire outlining what you’ve discovered or concerns you might have, and then will assess your child’s reactions to various sensory input. He or she will combine those two sets of informatio­n into a report with recommenda­tions for your child. Armstrong also points out that having an occupation­al therapist work with your child’s school to find the best solutions to make learning as successful as possible can also be an option.

Dr Meehan suggests a lovely way of addressing sensory questions with our kids – and with ourselves – without heaping any consternat­ion onto the situation. She recommends we ask, “How can we feel okay in our body? That phrase is really helpful for adults as well as children. It brings it back in a non-judgmental way. You’re not saying calm down. You’re saying, how can we feel okay in our bodies again, because that’s ultimately what we want to do, to be able to feel grounded but alert and present, both in our minds and our bodies. Our bodies are able to bring us back to that place again.”

Perhaps now we can be better equipped to work with our children and walk through the world with a better understand­ing that we’re all processing all of these sights, sounds and smells in our own unique way.

“No two of us are wired the same, and our bodies and brains all process sensory informatio­n


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