Each of us has the ability to sense potential danger. We are able to respond to these events with an appropriate amount of defense. Some people have a tendency to respond to certain harmless sensations as if they were dangerous or painful. This is called "sensory defensiveness".
Sensory defensiveness is an over-activation of our protective senses. It is a tendency to react negatively or with alarm to sensations that are generally considered harmless or non-irritating. In children with sensory defensiveness, their clothes may feel like spiders on the skin and a flight of stairs may seem like a cliff to them. Common symptoms may include over-sensitivity or over-reaction to light or unexpected touch, sudden movement, high-pitched noises and certain smells.
Sensory defensiveness results in varying degrees of stress and anxiety with each child. The child with sensory defensiveness may perceive the world as dangerous, alarming or at the very least irritating. Children with sensory defensiveness can be described as sometimes over-active, emotional or sensory-avoiding. Learned patterns and habits are often developed around avoiding disrupting sensory events or seeking out sensation that might restore comfort. When sensory defensiveness dominates a child's behaviour, parents or caregivers may find it increasingly difficult to manage the child. For example, the child may frequently hit or bite other children at school, throw temper tantrums during outings or destroy toys and books
Each child with sensory defensiveness develops his own set of behaviours. These are usually a combination of sensory avoidance and sensory seeking behaviours. There may be defensiveness to one or many types of sensations. Although it is not possible to list all the symptoms of sensory defensiveness, the following is a list of common symptoms that can be attributed to each of the sensory systems.
Occupational therapists have successfully identified and treated sensory defensiveness for many years. It is important that the diagnosis be made by a knowledgeable therapist through a careful sensory history review.
If your child displays some or all of the symptoms, and your daily routines are severely affected by the child's behaviour, you may wish to bring your child to see the occupational therapist for an assessment.
To consult an occupational therapist at KKH's Department of Child Development or Rehabilitation department, you will need a referral letter from your KKH doctor.
Adapted from Patricia Wilbarger, MEd, OTR, FAOTA and Julia Leigh Wilbarger, MS, OTR.
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