Sensory sensitivity is often focussed on children, particularly those dealing with autism. But adults can suffer from sensory sensitivity too.
In this post we will discuss what sensory sensitivity is and the facts you need to know in order to better manage it.
What is Sensory Sensitivity?
Sensory sensitivity refers to the degree to which external influences/stimuli affect an individual. These external influences/stimuli are experienced through the 6 sensory channels of sight, sound, taste, smell, touch, and pain.
This experience can be an over-sensitivity (hypersensitivity) or an under-sensitivity (hyposensitivity).
For example, crowds; One person may experience crowd noise as a complete irritant that they cannot bear, not even for a second. In fact it may be extremely painful, while another person may hardly hear crowd noise at all, yet they may find bright lights completely intolerable.
So how can we recognise sensory sensitivity, be more aware of how it manifests and be able to help those who experience it?
7 Important Facts You Should Know
Let’s take a look at 7 important facts about sensory sensitivity that can help you better understand it and also to cope with it if you, or someone you know, is currently experiencing it.
1. Sensory Processing Disorder Occurs In Adults And Children
The main difference between adults and children when it comes to sensory sensitivity is the ability to express exactly what is being experienced. In short, children often don’t have the ability to express themselves clearly.
A parent may not realise that their crying, wailing child is not in fact being naughty, but is being totally over-whelmed by the smell of spices being cooked in the kitchen.
The child doesn’t know why they are being affected and is expressing itself the only way it knows how.
An adult on the other hand, still might not know why the smell is so over-whelming but they can at least tell someone about it and/or do something about it by leaving the area or asking for the spices not to be used again for cooking.
2. Disability Can Enhance Sensory Sensitivity
Another factor in the degree to which an adult or child may experience sensory sensitivity is whether they were born with or acquired a disability.
Specific examples whwre sensory sensitivity is often evident is autism, attention deficit disorder, PTSD, Fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome.
Temporary disability can also be a factor such as not currently being in state of good health, such as having a severe migraine headache for example.
The medical profession in fact is not in total agreeance as to what actually constitutes Sensory Processing Disorder. Some doctors include some of the scenarios mentioned above while others exclude them and feel they are their own sub-set outside of SPD.
That is, SPD and sensory sensitivity may not be considered the same thing and to confuse the issue even further, both are different from Sensory Processing Sensitivity which is a biologically-based trait more associated with awreness than dysfunction or dysregulation.
Struggling with Sensory Sensitivity
3. There Are Sensory Seekers And Sensory Avoiders
Sensitivity can be hyper (increased) or hypo (decreased) and a person may be a seeker or avoider dependant on how Sensory Processing Disorder affects them.
A sensory seeker (hypo) is likely to go looking for stimulation which could be any of the following:
Having their hair brushed
Playing constantly (eg, jumping on trampolines etc)
Making lots of noise
Chewing crunchy foods
A sensory avoider (hyper) will do things like:
Run from loud noise
Stay still and not move
Close eyes in bright light
Scream in crowds
Not liked being touched
Over-dress to protect themselves
4. There Are Many Triggers For Sensory Sensitivity
Some of the things mentioned above in relation to seekers and avoiders can be considered triggers for sensory sensitivity.
But there are many others such as, flavours, smells, textures (such as fabrics or wood products), temperature, sounds (in volume, tone and pitch), feelings related to pain, beauty and body products like shampoos or perfumes and many more.
Many people are affected by tactile defensiveness which is where they are far more sesnitive to touch than other people.
Along with the 5 major senses there are also two additional senses known as vestibular and proprioceptive senses.
These senses relate to body awareness, motor skills and balance. So you can see that almost anything can trigger a hyper or hypo sensitive reaction.
5. Children Are Not Always Being Naughty
As mentioned in the beginning of this article, a crying, non-responsive or disruptive child is not necessarily a naughty child. The “terrible two’s” might in fact be the “10 awful triggers” sending your child into pain and confusion that they just can’t express to you clearly.
For example, your child might be “late” in learning to walk but it could also be that putting their feet on the floor is excruciating, and so they simply don’t stand up.
It’s a very difficult thing to understand but there are signs of hyper(over) or hypo(under) sensitivity you can look out for that may prompt you to visit your doctor for advice.
Here are some examples:
squint or seem uncomfortable in sunlight or glare, not like the sensation of labels on the inside of clothes or try to take their clothes off, eat only certain textured food, complain about smells like deodorants or perfumes or smell things that no-one else does, cover their ears to block out loud noises, have excellent balance, not feel the cold and want to wear shorts in winter, might overreact to little hurts
like bright colours, seek out different textures or rub their arms and legs against things, enjoy eating strongly flavoured food like onions and olives, sniff everything, turn up music or speak loudly, might have unstable balance, wear warm clothes in summer heat, ignore injuries or have delayed responses to injuries
You could also do some preliminary investigation yourself by using this sensory checklist
Squinting In The Glare of The Sun
6. Don’t Assume Sensory Sensitivity
This article has been highlighting the facts around sensory sensitivity but that doesn’t mean that what you may witness someone going through is an actual sensory issue.
We all have different reactions to external stimuli and we need to be careful not to label people just because they are reacting differently to a situation than we would.
The sound of knives and forks scraping on a plate can send someone suffering from a migraine into their own personal hell but that shouldn’t be interpreted as sensory sensitivity from a diagnostic point of view.
In fact, you should never attempt to diagnose anybody (only trained medical professionals can do that, such as doctors and occupational therapists) and you should also never attempt to “treat” anybody who you don’t know has had an actual diagnosis.
Always find out the facts about that person first, before doing anything.
And number 7…
Managing Sensitivity Is Possible
With the right information and by being patient, you can help someone manage the effects of sensory sensitivity.
For example, you can get a good understanding of the triggers and then limit the possibility of those triggers being present. Another way is to use tools and equipment to reduce the level of sensitivity in certain environments.
For example, if you have to travel by train and you are badly affected by noise, then using ear plugs might be an effective piece of equipment to counter the problem.
Similarly, using headphones with the volume turned down low would be a better way to listen to music of watch television as opposed to having the sound come through speakers.
If hyposensitivity is the issue and your child is under-sensitive to pain then labelling items as hot or cold might be a way to help them understand the difference and decrease the chance of them hurting themselves by touching something hot.
There is still a lot to learn about sensory related issues and as mentioned, not everyone is in agreeance with the definitions of sensory issues.
From Sapphire Support’s perspective we need to be cognisant of it and ensure that we take it into consideration when working with our client.
Our Supported Independent Living locations for example are scrutinised for potential issues and we work closely with clients to ensure the best outcomes and/or preventions are in place.
You can contact us here to discuss your own personal SIL needs.