#48 - Can Sensory Issues Be Solved?Nov 12, 2023
Can sensory issues be solved? Can you grow out of them? If you’re like many of the parents I know, this question is at the top of your mind. And you’re in luck, because that is exactly what we are going to discuss in today’s post.
Sensory issues are TOUGH. All you want is for your family to be happy and healthy - to eat nutritious meals, to have fun outings together, and to make friends. But when you’re struggling day in and day out with sensory issues, that can feel impossible.
You’re hanging on by a thread, and honestly don’t know how much longer you can keep going like this. So, you're left wondering, will these sensory issues ever go away? And what do you need to do to make that happen?
The very first thing I need to tell you is that sensory processing research is still relatively limited.
I know that's not what you want to hear, but we've got to share the truth. In the last 10 years, we've made significant progress, and new research is continually emerging to inform our decisions. BUT, it’s a big "but," – we don't have enough great evidence yet to 100% confirm or deny the effectiveness of sensory-based interventions.
What do I mean by “great evidence”? In the world of research, the strength of evidence is graded based on the number of participants, the study's design, and the magnitude of its effects. For example, parent surveys and case studies, though they contribute to research, aren't usually considered highly reliable because of their potential bias.
The good news is that research is continually evolving, but it takes a considerable amount of time for results to be published, often around a decade from start to finish. Nevertheless, some evidence is available, some of which I'll delve into in our episode today. But I'll also share plenty of insights from my experience as an occupational therapist with a decade of experience.
Let's start with the burning question: Can children simply grow out of sensory issues?
I know you're holding your breath and hoping for a certain answer. In my personal opinion, no, they don't just vanish. Here's why. Consider this scenario: a child who has an extreme dislike of sand at the beach. When he’s there, he avoids stepping off the towel, and becomes immediately upset if the sand stays on his hands. However, as a adult, he now visits the beach and actually enjoys it.
But did he merely wake up one day and immediately enjoy sand? Probably not. What likely happened is that over time, he was reintroduced to sand in different ways. He went, he got dirty, maybe got a bit upset, wiped it off, and you realized he was fine. The more this happened, the less the sand seemed scary to his brain and body.
Today, he still may not love sand, and he might not want to be buried head to toe in it. But he does love relaxing at the beach with a tropical drink in hand. He can tolerate its existence, enjoy his experience, and wipe it off when he leaves.
In these cases, it’s easy to say, "he grew out of it," but what really occurred is that he became desensitized to it. With each exposure, his brain grew a bit more comfortable and stopped sending alarm signals.
Could someone randomly start liking sand after hating it as a child? Maybe, but the research hasn't really explored that yet. I personally have yet to see a child who had a sensory trigger that bothered them one day and disappeared the next. Instead, they practiced and were exposed to it in gentle ways until it wasn’t as upsetting to them anymore.
And here's the interesting thing: we often see that as children progress in one area, such as becoming more comfortable with getting dirty, a similar sensory concern may show up in a different context, like food textures. It's the same sensory system, so touch in this case, but manifesting in different ways. So it’s not that the sensory issue just went away, but that they learned how to handle that one sensory trigger.
This aligns with some findings in neuroscience.
Our brains are incredibly adaptable. From the moment we are born, they are constantly laying down new pathways, called synapses. This means the brain is always changing and learning. As a child, we may feel one way about sand, but each encounter with sand teaches our brain something new, and new synapses are formed.
Now something really important to realize is that these synapses or pathways can be both positive and negative.
Which means our brain can form connections that either tell us sensory experiences are pleasant or unpleasant. For decreasing sensory triggers, we need positive experiences with those triggers. If we keep having negative experiences, it instead reinforces the brain that the trigger is threatening.
This is partially why early intervention is so crucial. Positive and supportive experiences early in life help create positive synapses that aid in sensory development. If we wait, and negative experiences continue to form synapses, it’s much harder to overcome that in the future.
There was an interesting study by Rosenthal et al. in 2013 that found a correlation between childhood and adult sensory issues. This suggests that the sensory challenges we experience in childhood can persist into adulthood. Again, that’s why I really believe early intervention is so important, to help children start becoming more in tune with their body and sensory systems from day 1, so that as an adult, they’re better attuned to their sensory needs.
However, it's important to note that even as teenagers & adults, we can continue to create positive changes by exposing ourselves to sensory triggers in manageable ways, ultimately helping our brain adapt and respond differently.
Further - as we get older, we also become better at regulating our bodies. For example, you don’t often see an adult having the same type of meltdown as a toddler. We may still have meltdowns, but it’s different because we have more control over our body. We also become more skilled at identifying our personal triggers, and finding ways to either avoid or compensate for them.
As we wrap up this episode, you may be wondering where to go from here. How can you help your child start solving these sensory challenges if they don’t just disappear on their own?
The first step is understanding sensory processing and identifying where the mismatch occurs between the world and your child's sensory needs. To truly support them, you need to see how they experience the world from a sensory standpoint.
Once you've gained that understanding, you can begin tailoring their learning and experiences to match their sensory preferences. The goal is to provide them with repeated positive sensory experiences instead of negative ones, all in small, manageable steps.
And here's where I'm thrilled to remind you that my 35-minute mini-course, Understanding Sensory Challenges is on still on-sale until tonight at 11:59PM. In this course, I take you through the different types of sensory processing challenges, so instead of feeling frustrated about what's going on, you can work on proactively supporting your child's sensory system, based on their specific needs & preferences.
Don't miss out on this opportunity to take that first step towards helping make the world a sensory-friendly experience for your child. Go to www.drsamgoldman.com/understandingsensorychallenges and use the code BLACKFRIDAY to save 25% off. But again, hurry! This ends at 11:59pm.
I can’t wait to see you inside!
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