The Social and Emotional Aspects of
Sensory Processing Challenges
Written By: Angie Voss, OTR
Working on the sensory foundation is the key to sensory success. And on the other hand, when the sensory foundation is NOT processing correctly and is unstable, the impact on development and self-regulation is dramatic, and this includes social and emotional development.
Here are some key points to consider when looking at the social and emotional impact and challenges faced in the life of a child with sensory differences.
SOCIAL POINTS TO CONSIDER
- A child who over-registers sensory input or struggles with sensory modulation perceives the world as a scary and unpredictable place. Therefore when in a social situation, the child is likely to stand back and observe and stay out of the mix as a strategy to "protect" and "guard" the nervous system from unpredictable and possibly very painful input. (For example: loud noises, being bumped by someone, an unexpected pat on the back or hug or kiss, or even the smell of someone's perfume can be very noxious to the nervous system). Respect this and let them engage socially on their terms.
- Our society places an unnecessary and uncomfortable demand on eye contact, and this in itself is enough to want to retreat to the corner of the room or hide behind a tree at the park.
- Another social skill that is HUGE and quite often very uncomfortable and downright impossible, is an adult insisting on a conversation or at least insisting on some type of response from the child when they are talked to...this MUST be respected as extremely difficult for the child and insisting on a response of some kind is unnecessary and disrespectful. Let the child engage and interact when they are good and ready. Period. Simply play with the child or alongside the child and let the interaction happen naturally.
- Other children in a social situation are typically less demanding and invasive compared to adults when it comes to conversations and such, but the trigger with the other children is the lack of awareness of personal space and social cues. This is part of typical social development and the best approach is to let your sensory kiddo lead the way as to which children they choose to interact with or play along side. Let this happen naturally as well.
- Some neuro-typical children lack education and awareness of those who act outside of the "norm", and may lack role models to help guide them in being accepting of those who are different than others. These children are actually not at fault...it is the parents and other adults in their lives either teaching them to be this way or lack of teaching them to be accepting, loving, respectful, and understanding. I wish I could wave a magic sensory wand on this topic, and make it disappear. All we can really do is continue to educate others about sensory challenges and special needs in general, to help create a more accepting society.
- One with sensory differences may also lack the ability to detect social cues and body language from those around them. The child may also not understand or grasp the concept of personal space of due to a lack of body awareness and body in space. This can cause the opposite of what I mentioned above and cause other children to not want to interact and play. Gentle and occasional verbal cues can sometimes help in teaching awareness of being in someone's personal space. But try not to over do it with the constant cues and reminders...that can backfire on you.
- Another social challenge is the "way" the sensory kiddo interacts with their peers...quite often the tone and pitch of their voice is not typical and this makes the child stand out in a social situation. They may also be very rigid in their interests and have sensory anchors that other children do not understand. This can also create a social wedge.
EMOTIONAL POINTS TO CONSIDER
- Sensory kids are little emotional sponges and co-regulate via those around them. If you are stressed or upset or angry, the child is sure to feel it, 100 times more than a child without sensory processing challenges.
- The limbic system is very intense and reactive (self-regulation and emotions)...therefore the child may feel and process emotions much stronger than the average person
- There is often a very strong need to succeed, and a fear of failing or making mistakes
- Fear of change, does best when things are predictable and the same
- A heightened awareness of sensory input, some sensory systems being more heightened than others
- An acute awareness of "the big picture"...understanding very complex concepts of life at a much younger age
- Self-regulation and emotional development are directly linked, and when dysregulation is present, emotional upset and quick mood changes are sure to follow and go hand in hand.
- Imagine if your environment was constantly causing you pain in some way or very uncomfortable...you would be emotionally drained too, right?
- Children with anxiety as a result of a nervous system that over-registers sensory input will also have very quick shifts in emotions.
- On the other hand, a child who under-registers sensory input or presents with other sensory processing challenges may lack emotions and have more of a "flat affect" (lack of emotion) and also demonstrate difficulty in reading emotional cues from others.
- Sensory kids are known to be quick to cry and then quickly shift to smiling, or happy and content in a certain situation and then need to flee at the drop of a hat. This is often related to sensory modulation difficulties.
The most important point to remember is the fact that sensory processing challenges indeed impact social and emotional development. It is our job as parents/caregivers/teachers to respect these differences and help create a safe and accepting environment, as well as being that advocate and voice in helping others understand these social and emotional differences.