Trying to make SENSE of the world!
Imagine living a life on ‘high alert!’ Your body constantly perceiving the world as a dangerous place and the perception of normal stimuli and everyday occurrences are perceived as stressful situations. Living a life where auditory, visual, olfactory, proprioceptive and tactile stimuli are perceived as noxious whether they are threatening or not... This is how a child with sensory defensiveness perceives and experiences the world. They are constantly trying to make sense of their world and are trying to reduce their perceived stress in what they would describe as ‘scary or unpleasant situations’.
Every individual has the ability to sense potential danger. We use our senses to tell us if we are going to fall, if there is a cockroach crawling up or leg or if there is smoke in the air. In these situations we use or senses and respond appropriately to protect ourselves from these dangerous or scary situations. Children with sensory defensiveness are constantly stuck in what their body perceives as ’dangerous situations’. They tend to respond to harmless situations and stimuli as if they are dangerous or even painful. They may exhibit patterns of anxiety, stress, distractibility, fear, aggression, avoidance or sensory seeking. These behaviours are often misidentified as emotionally based.
With sensory defensiveness a child can present as mild, moderate or severe. We need to look for tactile, auditory and visual symptoms, oral tactile symptoms (avoidance of food textures and things around the mouth), gravitational insecurities (fear of changes in position or movement), postural insecurities (fear of certain movement based activities) as well as smell and taste aversions. In children with mild sensory defensiveness, they are often described as picky, oversensitive and touchy. They may over react to a few sensory experiences. These children often go undetected and can adapt to the demands of life. In moderate cases, two or more areas of the child’s life would be affected. They will often present with difficulties when confronted with change and developing social relations are often difficult. In severe cases of sensory defensiveness, every aspect of the child’s life is disrupted with some areas being more affected than others.
Now picture how a child with even mild sensory defensiveness would react to a classroom situation. They have no control over the stimuli that they are presented with and are expected to react to ‘scary’ and ‘stressful’ situations in the same way that children without sensory defensiveness would act. These children with sensory defensiveness are often children in the classroom situation who are described as fidgety, the child who hides under the desk or looks for a safe spot in the corner and the child who reacts behaviourally to a loud sound or an innocent touch from a peer. It’s essential that we understand where their behaviours are stemming from. They are often described as the children with behavioural difficulties and the ones who are constantly disruptive in a classroom setting, when all they need is the sensory support and the support to make sense of the world in the way that they perceive it.
‘Try it you will like it!’ ‘I just wish you would try something new!’ ‘You can’t survive on plain pasta and cheese!’ ‘Why can’t you eat something with some nutritional value?’
Does this sound like mealtimes in your house? If so your child may have an underlying sensory or motor feeding difficulty which is affecting their willingness to eat a range of foods or causing them to be selective in terms of the types and textures of foods that they eat. Parents are often told that their child will outgrow it and that they are just trying to exert independence, in most cases this can be proved untrue. If a child is fussy there is almost always an underlying cause for their fussiness.
Neophobia or the fear of new foods generally peaks at 2 and declines after that. A fussy eater or behavioural feeder will continue having a very limited diet and selective food intake, often having less than 25 foods in their repertoire.
Eating is both a motor and sensory based activity. Fussiness around eating is often due to inefficiency in one or both of these systems. Oral-motor difficulties will affect a child’s ability to chew and swallow firmer textures. In these cases exercises would be implemented to improve oral movements and functioning, resulting in an improvement in a child’s ability to eat a wider range of foods.
A child with sensory difficulties often can’t tolerate having their hands dirty and they can’t tolerate touching different textures. This can be evident when a child is playing with some foods as well as non food items, like sand. They will regularly ask to have their hands cleaned and will try and clean mess that is in their view. They may also be sensitive to strong smells, having to move away from the source. Parents often say that their child will eat dirt off the floor, but won’t eat food! Infants explore the world using their hands and should be encouraged to explore their food on their plate the way that they do the dirt in the park. Our attitude to food is that it should be eaten, not to play with, but exploration is key! Children who find this challenging need help with learning how to regulate their sensory systems, as well as decreasing their irrational fears around eating new foods.
Children don’t have definite likes or dislikes. It takes 16 dislikes to acquire a like! Repeated exposure is key!
If mealtimes are a constant battle and your child is surviving on a limited diet it is worth having them assessed. It’s not something that they will grow out of and no individual needs to live their life being scared of something that is integral to their survival. All children have the potential to be great eaters!
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