Sensory defensiveness

Sensory defensiveness is a negative reaction to a sensation or a number of sensations.

Does your child becomes upset and will not touch objects such as sand or dirt, or do they become upset with tags on their clothing rubbing against their skin?

This often requires the parent or carer to avoid certain routines or activities or objects in order to manage the child distress over these sensory experiences.

It is important to realise that many adults with intellectual disability and/or Autism also experience sensory deprivation that through usual behaviour support interventions have not been identified and have merely been recognised as a “challenging behaviour.”

There are different types of sensory deprivation:

  • Tactile – relates to our sense of touch. A child with tactile deprivation will over react to touch.
  • Auditory – relates to hearing and listening. Children with auditory deprivation show sensitivity to common sounds such as the vacuum cleaner, toilet flushing…
  • Visual – relates to our vision or sight. Children with visual deprivation may react to light including sunlight and florescent lights
  • Oral – relates to our sense of taste. A child with oral deprivation may gag from certain textures or refuse to eat foods.
  • Vestibular – relates to our sense of movement and balance. A child with vestibular deprivation may show a fear of falling during normal activity and movement or become distressed by changes in head position.

Children with autism and/or sensory processing disorder may experience one of more symptoms of sensory deprivation.

Early Intervention is important for children experiencing sensory deprivation, as sensory deprivation usually results in parents/ carers and the child avoiding certain situations or objects. This significantly impacts on the child, and often the family’s daily routines. Sensory defensiveness can be reduced and even eliminated with assistance from a Paediatric Occupational Therapist with experience in sensory integration issues.

Lets look at the different types of sensory deprivation in more detail:


Tactile – Children with tactile defensiveness will often avoid touch from others, including hugs from parents, and hand holding with friends. It is common for these children to hit out and grab at others in order to prevent someone from touching them. This often gets confused for aggression.

They will avoid any situation that involves touch. This may include hair washing, face washing and crowds (where they may bump into other people). Many children with tactile defensiveness are irritated by clothing such as tags/ labels, elastic waistbands, certain fabrics and new clothes.

Auditoryauditory defensiveness is common with children with Autism and involves an oversensitivity to sounds or different frequencies of sound. These children may cover their ears or block out noises in other ways. They might make sounds to block out noises they are sensitive to. They often avoid noisy environments such as the school playground and times may become distressed in the classroom if it is noisy.

Visual: Children with visual defensiveness are often irritated by florescent lights, they may complain that the television is too bright, or that the sun hurts their eyes. They may avoid going outside on sunny days or areas with bright lighting.


Oral: Children with this type of sensory defensiveness often dislike certain flavours, textures or temperatures of food. Parents of these children often complain their child is “fussy eater” as these children may only eat specific foods or may avoid certain foods, often becoming distressed when presented with a food they are sensitive to.

Vestibular: Is often referred to as gravitational insecurity. These children are often afraid of having their feet leave the ground, this may present as a fear of falling whilst riding a swing or a bicycle. They prefer minimal movement activities where they don’t experience this fear.

Therapies for sensory deprivation

There are many therapies and support strategies that an Occupational Therapist with experience in sensory integration issues can provide for a child and their family to help manage sensory deprivation.

The first step is to create awareness of the sensations the child may be sensitive to. It is very common that the sensory avoiding or sensory seeking behaviours a child with sensory deprivation displays have been attributed to something else. For example a child with tactile sensory defensiveness who hits out at other children to avoid their touch has been identified as aggressive to their peers or a child with oral defensiveness who refuses to eat warm foods is identified as a fussy eater. It is important to identify all the sensory integration issues and recognise it is not the child just being defiant/ stubborn or aggressive. Rather it is a response to a highly overwhelming and distressful situation for the child.


The second step may be to introduce a sensory diet (which really has nothing to do with food!!). It is based upon the idea that a certain amount of stimulation is needed to assist the child to function. Therefore a sensory diet uses sensory input (based on each individual child needs) given at regular times throughout the day to help the child stay focussed and organised. Sensory diet activities may include jumping, reassuring pressure, pushing or pulling or various fidget tools.

A sensory diet is developed by a qualified Occupational Therapist who designs the diet to meet the individual needs of each child and their environments they need to function in.

If you suspect your child has signs of sensory deprivation contact a Paediatric Occupational Therapist with experience in sensory integration issues to discuss further. At Real Disability Care you can use our free meet and greet service to discuss this with our experienced Paediatric Occupational Therapist, just call us today 1300 725 961

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