Insane Ways Sensory Needs Impact Children Without Autism

3 Insane Ways Sensory Needs Impact Children WITHOUT Autism

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Updated: 2/1/2019

Some of you might be familiar with the concept of sensory overload. Every person on the planet has experienced it at some time in their life, even if they didn’t have a word for it.

Sensory needs are more commonly discussed in families with children with special needs. Science has proven that sensory experiences contribute to children’s behavior and reactions to daily events.

Children with special needs often experience their senses differently than the rest of us, so those families learn about how their child perceives sensory experiences and adjusts accordingly. 

This isn’t just for children with special needs. Every child has sensory needs, wants, and dislikes. All parents need to learn and adjust for our children’s sensory needs! 

What are Sensory Needs?  

Our body is constantly perceiving the world around us through our 5 senses- smell, taste, touch, hearing, and sight. There is a “6th sense” that contributes to our daily experiences- motion.

Each person has a limit to how much of everything their body can take in.

man closing his ear

Lucky for us, our body naturally shields some of the input from our various senses. There are things that we “sense” but we don’t take notice of. If we did, we would simply go crazy because the amount of input is just too much to process. For example:

  • When’s the last time you noticed the hum of your refrigerator? Does the ceiling fan make a sound? Do you unconsciously make noise, such as tapping a pencil or sighing?
  • What about the feel of the carpet beneath your bare feet? Or the feel of your shoes against the top and bottom and sides of your foot? Do your shoes feel different on your heel compared to your toes? Do you feel textures of the ground you walk on through your shoes?
  • Can you taste your own saliva? (I know, kinda gross, but it illustrates the point that all 5 senses are constantly picking up on things but we don’t notice.)
  • Or maybe the motion of your walk? Do you swing from side to side? Do you walk quickly or slowly? Do you stomp your feet down or do you step delicately?
  • Are the light bulbs in your house tinted yellow or are they white? What order are the colors of the “Google” letters?

See, there’s a million examples! We just can’t take it all in so our body filters out the stuff that it doesn’t find important.

How does it decide what’s important? You tell it. Whatever you choose to focus on is brought to the forefront and the rest is on back burner.

This is all cool stuff, but how does this relate to parenting?

1) Selective Hearing is Real

A teenager is sitting on the couch playing video games.

His mom walks by and says “Hey, can you bring your dirty clothes to the laundry room? I’m starting a load of whites.”

The kid absently says “Mmmhmmm.” No eye contact.

Mom walks away, trying to give him his space. In 20 minutes, the kid still hasn’t brought mom his laundry.

This time, she stands right in front of the TV and demands to know why he hasn’t completed the chore yet.

Confused, the kid’s first question is “What are you talking about??”

I see this with my younger kids all the time. “Don’t touch the scissors” seems to translate into “Hey, these are a really cool toy- Please play with them!”

My daughter is often genuinely confused when I ask her why she didn’t listen the first time.

I am usually even more frustrated by this because I feel ignored. It’s good for me to remember that the confusion is real because my child literally can’t hear me.

No, she doesn’t have any hearing problems.

It’s just that sensory stuff coming into play.

selective focus photography of woman holding clear glass ball

She’s focused on something, so her mind is filtering out unnecessary sensory input that does not relate to what she is focused on.

Yep, I count as unnecessary sensory input to her subconscious mind. Flattering. 

How can I improve my chances of having positive communication with my kids?

  • Be patient, and understand that she isn’t trying to annoy me.
  • When I give a direction, make sure I have eye contact first.
  • Limit distractions before I give a direction, such as pausing the game or turning off the TV for a minute.
  • Say her name to get attention rather than just talking into space. “Hey” doesn’t always cut it because the child doesn’t realize you are talking to them.

2) When Your Child is Upset or Emotional, Sensory Input can Overload his System

When a person gets angry or emotional, sensory input goes haywire.

selective focus photography of grumpy face toddler sitting on plaid pad taken during daytime

That’s because your body is in fight or flight mode. Physiological changes occur that are intended to keep you safe from danger.

  • Your heart rate and blood pressure rise.
  • You breathe faster.
  • You think less and react more. (Again, this is intended to keep you safe from primitive types of dangers, like being eaten by a dinosaur.)
  • Your sensory system hyper-focuses in on the immediate danger (or problem that is causing the stress).
    • If you ever hear stories of people who were in life or death situations, often they report exaggerated facts from the scene- Not on purpose, but because their body really perceived the event differently due to this hyper-focus.
    • For example, someone who was attacked by an average sized bear might mistakenly report that the bear was huge, many times its actual size.
  • Your sensory system is on red alert to keep you safe so it doesn’t do as well at sorting out some information. Besides that, the reactions of your body (heart rate, blood pressure, breathing) are additional forms of sensory input that you don’t usually deal with, so your body has even more input to sort through! And it’s already behind! For example, the pounding in your head from your increased blood pressure is a sensory experience that adds to the existing stress.

When your child is in this mode, his already underdeveloped brain doesn’t stand much of a chance at thinking logically through the situation. No wonder all this crazy emotion often leads to tantrums!

A common mistake I make in this situation is trying to jump into the logical explanations before the child is calmed down.

First, get the sensory experience under control and then you can get around to the explaining.

3) When You are Upset or Emotional, Sensory Input can Overload YOUR System

Oh yeah, all that stuff that we said above about your kid feeling sensory overload?

That all applies to you too.

So take care of yourself. If you catch yourself feeling overwhelmed by a situation, there’s a 99% chance your body is in sensory overload.

Use the same steps as above to make sure you’re ok before you deal with the situation.

Seriously. Take care of yourself. Nobody will take care of your kid if you don’t. And you can’t take care of your kid if you’re overloaded.

woman wearing green top

You can’t pour from an empty cup.

A Quick Word on Sensory Experiences and Autism (And Other Disabilities)

For all of you parents of children with Autism (or other disabilities), let’s chat about how children with disabilities (especially autism) often experience their 5 senses (and the 6th sense- motion) differently than we do.

  • four person holding assorted-color jigsaw puzzles inside room

Imagine the possibilities for that simple fact to impact every moment of their lives!

  • Imagine if you couldn’t tune out the “drip, drip, drip, drip” of a broken faucet.
  • Imagine if every fluorescent light you ever saw was constantly flickering, but nobody else seemed to see it.
  • Imagine if the tag on your shirt was covered in itching powder and constantly rubbed against your neck.

Luckily, this sometimes works in reverse too.

  • Imagine if the swish of the swings were just as energizing and exciting as riding a roller coaster!
  • Imagine if you could see more vibrant colors.
  • Imagine how music must sound!
  • Imagine how warm, secure, and perfect a hug would feel- beyond our everyday comprehension!

No wonder these children experience some of the purest joy in life. But, no wonder they also experience random and confusing moments of frustration and intense anger.

When I am around these children, I try to identify the sensory experiences that the child loves, as well as the ones that bother them.

This takes a lot of trial and error, but I have a chance to make their life and my own life so much more enjoyable by identifying a few of those aspects. If I can identify and control even a few of them, I can eliminate unnecessary heartache in the already difficult life of a parent who is raising a child with disabilities.

This can also add to the joy of that child’s life. A life that faces unfair hardships. I want to give them as much joy as I possibly can. This is a great way to do it.

Whether you are a parent of a child with disabilities or not, understanding sensory needs and sensory overload can help parents eliminate problems before they start or deescalate upset children.

  • and breathe neon sign on tre

I hope this concept makes your lives a little easier and takes away some of those times when Fit Hits the Shan.


Mrs. S

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