What is sensory defensiveness?

Sensory defensiveness is a “fight or flight” reaction to a stimulus that most people would not perceive as negative. Children with sensory defensiveness over-respond to sensory input and react by displaying negative emotions or behaviors. Children who over-respond to sensory input may inefficiently process sensory information from the auditory, olfactory, visual, vestibular and tactile systems.

What causes sensory defensiveness?

Sensory defensiveness indicates a low neurological threshold–it takes very little for the brain to respond to sensory information. For example, a child may be lightly touched while standing in a line with peers and may respond by acting out aggressively. Sensory defensiveness is frequently linked to poor limbic or reticular system processing.

How does this condition affect my child?

Sensory defensiveness affects the daily functioning of children at home, school and in all social Sensory Defensivenesscircumstances. Children with this condition may avoid, withdraw, or even lash out at any stimulus they perceive to be negative. These consistent patterns of behavior may limit opportunities for exploring their environment, interacting with peers, or communicating their needs to others. The following are a few examples of sensory defensiveness:

  • Auditory defensiveness: fearful reactions to noise, such as covering ears to loud noises (leaf blower, train, vacuum, etc.)
  • Tactile defensiveness: aversive reactions to tags in clothing, light touch, brushing of hair and avoidance of play activities that involve body contact
  • Visual defensiveness: hypersensitivity to light or avoidance of eye gaze
  • Olfactory defensiveness: distress to certain odors that others do not seem to mind
  • Vestibular defensiveness: aversive sympathetic nervous system reactions to swinging or other forms of vestibular-proprioceptive input, such as nausea or vertigo, or fearful emotional reactions (also known as gravitational insecurity)

How can I help treat my child’s sensory defensiveness?

Sensory integrative strategies are commonly used to treat sensory defensiveness. Sensory experiences are introduced slowly and gradually so the child does not react negatively to the introduction of the stimulus. It is important to communicate safety and comfort to the child during the introduction of these stimuli, so he does not feel threatened by these therapeutic experiences.

Our approach at North Shore Pediatric Therapy

At North Shore Pediatric Therapy, our occupational therapists provide a rich sensory environment for your child, which meets his specific needs. For example, our therapists might introduce your child to interaction and play with sand, water, and finger paints, which may help decrease extreme reactions to tactile experiences. We might also utilize a sound-based intervention called “Therapeutic Listening,” which improves auditory regard. Our therapists will accommodate your child’s needs in a safe and secure environment, and we will work to improve his sensory processing both in our facility and in his every day life.