Sensory Dysfunction Disorder in Children: Symptoms, Treatment & Definition

Instructor: Lisa Apikos

Lisa has over 20 years experience as an instructor and has an MBA with a specialization in Organizational Psychology.

This lesson provides information on Sensory Dysfunction Disorder that will help you better understand how this dysfunction can be identified and treated.

Definition of Sensory Dysfunction Disorder

Right now, as you sit reading this lesson, all of your senses are working together to provide your brain with information on your environment. Everything around you is sending messages to your brain. The feel of the chair that you are sitting on, the sounds all around you, the images that you see, the smells that are present around you; all of these senses work together to help your brain understand what is happening at any given second in your life. With this information, your brain can process your surroundings and send back information that causes you to behave or respond appropriately.

Is it too hot right now? You may take off your jacket to respond to that sensation. Is the sun shining brightly and making you squint? You may choose to put on sunglasses or to move to another location. If you attempt to drink that cup of coffee on the table and it's too hot, you will choose to wait until it's a bit cooler. This interaction between all of your senses and the cognitive processing of your brain allows you to function, to accomplish things, and to stay safe.

However, for some people, this integration of sensory processing is disrupted. It is as if some of the messages coming in from the individual's senses are blocked or misdirected. Sensory Dysfunction Disorder is a condition that causes the sensory signals to be unorganized, missed, or exaggerated. For a person with this disorder, it is difficult to process and then respond to information coming in from the senses. Children who suffer from this condition can find it difficult, sometimes impossible, to complete even the simplest of tasks.

Symptoms of Sensory Dysfunction Disorder in Children

Sensory Dysfunction Disorder affects people in different ways. This disorder is typically diagnosed in children. However, it can be difficult to diagnose because the symptoms can be quite different from child to child. For one child, there may be a dysfunction in only one sense, such as hearing or touch, whereas another child may experience difficulties with more than one sense. Likewise, the level of dysfunction will vary from child to child. This is a disorder that sits on a spectrum of intensity. For one child, any level of light may cause them to struggle to the point of needing sunglasses all of the time for comfort, but they may be able to overcome the challenge without the sunglasses. However, another child may find the sensation of anything touching their skin, such as human touch or even material from clothing, unbearable.

The following list of symptoms shows possible signs of Sensory Dysfunction Disorder:

  • A child may have an over-response to any sensation including physical contact, light, sound, food or smell and find the sensation unbearable.
  • A child may have an under-response to sensory inputs such as showing little or no reaction to stimulation, hot or cold, or even pain.
  • Children with impaired sensory processing related to their muscles and joints will have problems with posture and any motor skills.
    • These children may be considered uncoordinated, may bump into things, have a hard time negotiating the space around them or shy away from engaging with others in play.
    • Children with muscle sensation processing challenges can also have a problem with their speech development.
  • Many children with this disorder are unhappy babies who develop anxiety as they grow.
  • These children will often not handle change without resistance. This can cause them to respond through temper tantrums or emotional meltdowns.

It is important to note that many children will experience some or all of these symptoms at various stages of development. In order for a child to have a diagnosis of Sensory Dysfunction Disorder, their behavior and sensory responses must be extremely out of proportion to the sensory images being presented, and the response must occur consistently. For a child with Sensory Dysfunction Disorder, the exaggerated response will be extreme and consistent enough to reflect challenges in completing daily tasks and navigating their environment.

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