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Too tight, too fast, too loud, too yucky, what is sensory defensiveness?

Does your child get upset by tags in clothing, the sound of flushing toilets, or certain smells in the environment? If so, your child could be having difficulties with sensory defensiveness. Sensory defensiveness is a negative reaction to one or more types of sensations which require you as the parent to control his/her daily routine to avoid such things or deal with the fall out. These may include touch, movement, sound, taste/texture, or smell.

Tactile Defensiveness

Our touch defense keeps us from danger and helps us identify objects around us.

A child who is having difficulty with tactile defensiveness may overreact o ordinary touch, avoid washing hands and feet or brushing hair, and avoid light touch. In contrast, the child may look for deep touch like a bear hug or bump into furniture or other people frequently.

Vestibular Insecurity

Our vestibular system is our sense of balance and movement. It helps us know where our head and body are in relation to gravity and is highly connected to vision, posture, emotions, and coordination. A child who is having difficulty with gravitational insecurity may overreact to ordinary movement or be excessively fearful of common movements including riding a bike, swinging at the playground, or climbing a tree. He/she may tantrum when held upside-down. The child may avoid being in groups from fear of the unpredictability of movement by the others around him/her. These children often prefer sedentary activities.

Auditory Defensiveness

The auditory system is our sense of hearing and listening. This system helps us respond appropriately to the sounds we hear. A child who is having difficulty with auditory sensitivity may cry when a toilet if flushed or you are running the vacuum cleaner. This child may be seen covering his/her ears to block out “loud” noises or become extremely anxious in noisy environments.

Oral Defensiveness

Oral defensiveness interferes with our olfactory system, gustatory system, or tactile system. The olfactory system is our sense of smell while the gustatory is our sense of taste. These systems are closely related and impact our emotions and memory. The tactile system is involved in oral defensiveness via texture and temperature. A child who is having difficulty with taste, smell, and texture may be a “picky” eater. He/she may gag when presented with certain tastes, textures, or smells. This child may appear messy and resist brushing his/her teeth or washing his/her face.

The environment can be an overwhelming and confusing place for children whose sensory systems overreact to sensations they receive from the environment. So if this sounds like your child, you might want to consider contacting an occupational therapist for help.

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