What Do Sensory Difficulties Look Like?

light bulbMany children with sensory difficulties often want to shield their eyes from bright lights.

Does my child have sensory difficulties and if so, how can I tell? Read on and I will describe some examples of what to look for, giving you a better idea of what kind of help your child needs.

First, I need to point out why you would even need to look for clues as to whether or not your child has some form of sensory processing disorder.

Sensory problems can affect how well a person can function in a number of ways.  These issues can affect behavior in a child as well as ability to perform well at school, in social situations and at a job when your child is older.


Sensory Difficulties:  Hypersensitivity and Hyposensitivity

Hypersensitivity is extreme sensitivity to certain stimuli, including light, sounds, textures, smells and even ones own body awareness.  Hyposensitivity is a lack of ability to sense stimuli, including light, sounds, textures, smells and body awareness.  It is common for a person to be hypersensitive in some ways and hyposensitive in other areas.


Possible Signs of Sensory Processing Disorder

This list includes both hypersensitive and hyposensitive traits.  Note that if your child has sensory difficulties, she may exhibit some but not all of these characteristics.

  • Holds ears when anticipating noises.  Sometimes the noises she is sensitive to may not be very loud.
  • Avoids strong or unpleasant odors.
  • Picky about what she eats and avoids foods with certain textures.
  • Picky about what clothes she wears and dislikes certain textures or tight-fitting clothes.
  • Has a hard time focusing on one thing or task.
  • Dislikes being touched or cuddled.
  • Unable to calm himself down
  • Sensitive to bright lights.  May close eyes at inappropriate times.  For example, he may try to keep his eyes closed when he should open them to avoid running into objects.
  • Dislikes rinsing hair under running water.
  • Resists haircuts.
  • Resists brushing teeth and/or toothpaste. 
Wrapped in his blanketBecause of his sensory issues, my son loves to wrap himself in his blanket. I think it's kind of cute, but more importantly, it seems to have a calming effect on him.
  • Wraps himself in a blanket, sometimes for long periods of time (and not just when sleeping and regardless of how hot the room may be).  Note that if your child does this, you should allow it as this behavior often has a calming effect.
  • Often clings tightly to a trusted parent, family member or friend when in unfamiliar surroundings.
  • Excessively smells objects or people.
  • Unable to detect bad odors or doesn’t seem to mind bad odors.
  • Likes to wear tight-fitting clothing.
  • Craves excessive movement:  rocking, pacing, bouncing a leg while seated, and/or constantly on the go.
  • Often has temper tantrums
  • Aggressive
  • Insensitive to pain
  • Easily confused or overwhelmed by too much stimuli or too much information at once or by too many instructions at once
  • Difficulty completing school assignments without constant encouragement to stay on task
  • Often loses his place when reading
  • In infants and toddlers, body may be rigid or floppy
  • Poor motor skills or tendency to be clumsy
  • Has a hard time making friends
  • Difficulty with sleeping
  • Difficulty with toilet training
  • Handwriting difficulties
finger paintingWhile most children enjoy finger painting, some kids with SPD may dislike getting their hands messy.
  • Dislikes getting messy
  • Easily distractible  
  • Impulsive
  • Seems to not notice other people
  • Slow-paced, lethargic
  • In small children, will only go to one trusted parent or caregiver
  • Afraid of heights or of falling; afraid of using moving playground equipment
  • Doesn’t appear dizzy, even after spinning
  • Dislikes baths or showers
  • Unaware of dirty hands or face
  • Constantly touches everything
  • Often breaks things
  • Constantly drooling
  • Self-abusive
  • Unaware of danger—loves to jump or fall, possibly even from dangerous heights
  • Loves to be squeezed
  • Seems physically uncoordinated, and may often run into objects
  • Avoids eye contact
  • Often tastes or chews nonfood items
  • Likes foods with strong flavors
letter confusionSome children with sensory issues may have a hard time telling the difference between letters that are similar.
  • Difficulty telling the difference between similar letters
  • Enjoys making noise and/or likes loud music
  • May have a hard time hearing or responding to verbal instructions or prompts.


As large as this list is, it is by no means complete.  If your child exhibits some of these characteristics, or even if you feel that something isn’t quite right about your child, it may be best to go ahead and have her evaluated by an occupational therapist.  

My motto is to leave no stone unturned.  Check out every possibility until you find out exactly what is wrong.  Because until you figure it out, you’ll be a lot less likely to get proper treatment or therapy for your child.  

Also keep in mind that SPD can be mistaken for Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), or even Asperger’s Syndrome.  So if you haven’t already done so, download this checklist for identifying sensory difficulties in your child.


› Sensory Difficulties

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