By Michaela E. Gordon, OTR/L
Do you ever hear a kid say, “You don’t get it. You don’t know how it feels to be me!” That is the truth. We don’t know what it feels like to be them. We can only empathize and try to relate based on what we are experiencing. When it comes to sensory defensiveness, children are over responding to sensory input, which causes a fight, flight, or freeze response. It is not necessarily the actual stimuli that is the issue, but rather the way the sensory signal is being processed when it reaches the higher level pathways of the brain.
We all have some degree of sensory preference and sensitivity. And some sensitivity is good. If you were walking across a street and noticed that a car was both close and coming at you, it is a smart move to run as quick as you can! However, if you are walking across the street and you hear a car way off in the distance, but your brain says, “Run, you are about the get hit!” when that is not the case, then the brain has just sent you a false alarm, which can be confusing and distressing. If the brain is constantly misinterpreting non-threatening sensory input as a danger, this can impact the child’s confidence while interacting with the world and can give them a sense that the world around them isn’t safe and at the very least, uncomfortable.
Here are the types of sensory defensiveness one might be feeling:
- Tactile defensiveness. This is the most recognized type of defensiveness. These children have strong reactions to touch information. They may complain about hygiene routines. These complaints can include brushing their teeth or hair hurts, bathing is uncomfortable, clipping their nails or getting a haircut is painful. These children complain about their clothing, refusing to putting on their socks and shoes or only wanting to wear a specific piece of clothing. These children may also have difficulty with accepting touch from others so they avoid hugs or they will report that others have hurt them because normal touch felt like a push or some other assault.
- Auditory defensiveness. This is also a widely recognized sensitivity. These children put their hands over their ears to block loud noises. They may refuse to go into public places or use the restrooms because of loud sounds like music or the toilet flushing. These children may be bothered by everyday sounds at home and school so they avoid situations, have meltdowns, or become aggressive due to the noise.
- Movement defensiveness. In the OT world, we call this gravitational insecurity where the child develops great anxiety when experiencing movement. These children do not feel comfortable moving through space, especially if their feet leave the ground. In babies, they may be fearful to stand or walk. In toddlers and children, you might see them avoiding riding their bikes, climbing playground equipment or using swings. These children usually crawl upstairs versus standing. You will often seem them keeping both their hands and feet on the ground when scared or unsure. They often cling onto parents and teachers for dear life and can’t bring themselves to go enjoy play with the other children.
- Visual defensiveness. These children are often sensitive to light. They may ask to turn the lights off or you’ll see them squinting or rubbing their eyes. Their parents may need to put a screen up in the car to block the sunlight. These children may become overwhelmed with fast moving environments or fast moving television shows. These children can be easily startled by visual stimulation, especially peripheral stimulation they weren’t expecting.
If you are someone without defensiveness, these scenarios may not make sense to you. Perhaps you are a good integrator of sensory stimulation, but your child or student is not. Instead of the sensory signals informing the various parts of the brain in a rational way so the child can learn, play, and relate, these signals are heading right to the watchdog of the brain, the amygdala. The brain tells the child, “Danger, danger! You must protect yourself!” These constant false alarms can be overwhelming over time and can impact the child’s emotional well-being and their ability to participate in everyday life tasks. It can take a toll on relationships and make the child feel like there is something “wrong with them”. So when a child says, “You don’t know how it feels to be me,” you may want to answer, “You’re right, I have no idea how it feels to be you AND we are going to figure out how make this better.” In other words, we are going to figure out how to get your brain and body working in a more integrated manner.
Here’s the good news! We know that using sensory integration treatments and tools, we can retrain the brain to better understand the sensory signals so they are correctly informing the child as they interact with the world. Several things need to happen in order for this to be accomplished. The right tools need to be identified, the tools need to be implemented with frequent consistency, and the child needs to want to participate on some level. If that can happen, it is amazing how the nervous system can shift and the defensiveness can either be reduced and in some instances completely resolved.
It is an honor to help children overcome these challenges. It can really have such a positive impact on their quality of life, yielding to a more comfortable and confident child. If your child or a child you know presents with sensory defensiveness I encourage you to get them to an occupational therapist.
“Dwell in possibility.” Emily Dickinson
For more information on the author, please go to http://www.michaelagordon.com