Does my child have a sensory sensitivity or need?

If your child is sensitive to sound, touch, taste, smell, visuals or movements, they may have a sensory need. It’s not always obvious whether a child has a sensory need. Some of the first signs can also be age-appropriate behaviour that will pass later.

Every child who has a sensory sensitivity is different, and their needs may change over time. Sensitivities are sometimes linked to autism or sensory processing disorder. But some children may have sensory needs without any connection to either.

Sensory sensitivity - dad touching hands with child

Types of sensory sensitivity

  • Sound. A child may be sensitive to too much noise, or a type of sound like clapping or footsteps. They might be sensitive to the direction of noise, or dislike when they can’t see the source of a sound. Some children will want constant background noise.
  • Touch. Your child may feel uncomfortable with physical contact, or seek it out. This can include contact with people or textures.
  • Smell. Some children are sensitive to particular smells. They may feel overpowered by smell no matter where it comes from.
  • Taste and texture. They may want to put different textures in their mouth. This could be anything – food, hair or toys for example. They may only want soft foods or dislike wet foods.
  • Visual. This can include bright lights, or being unable to cope with the dark. They may not like different colours being close together, or they may want things to be in a line.
  • Movement. They children may enjoy certain sensations, like pushing on something.

What does a sensory sensitivity look like?

Children might be ‘sensory seekers’, trying to meet a need through a sensation. They can also be ‘sensory avoiders’, meaning they find some sensations difficult. Some children will show signs of both.

Signs of a sensory need may include ongoing resistance to or fixations with things like:

  • Brushing their teeth.
  • Washing hands.
  • Brushing or washing hair.
  • Getting dressed or undressed.
  • Putting shoes on or fastening shoes.
  • Smell, taste or texture of food.
  • Presentation of food (such as a certain colour).
  • Chewing or sucking objects (such as hair, clothing, furniture).
  • New or different places.
  • Loud or unfamiliar noises (at supermarkets for example).

Feeling sensitive or overloaded can sometimes prompt some children to have a meltdown. Or they might retreat to a place they feel safe, with low stimulation.

How to support a child with sensory need

Recognising your child’s needs is the first step. If they are resisting what you see as routine tasks, try starting a behaviour diary. This can help you pinpoint what the triggers might be. Once you have a clearer idea of what helps or upsets them, there are different ways you can support.

  • Adjust your home. When is it noisy? Are there lots of colours and textures? Are there any strong smells? Think about creating a calm space for your child. This could be a room in another part of the home. Or a place they can retreat to (a blanket under a table can sometimes work).
  • Find ways to calm them. If you know your child is likely to find something difficult, think about what may help. This could be ear plugs, or something they like to smell. They might want a hug, or wrap themselves tight in a blanket.
  • Use sensory support aids. This includes chewing or fidget toys, weighted blankets, playdough or calming boxes. You can also buy clothes without seams or labels.
  • Communicate. Tell people. Explain to friends and family. Make plans and involve them so that they can also make changes to support your child.
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