A Google search of “sensory issues in children” reveals more than 20 million results and a wide range of terminology that can be confusing to parents, providers, and youth themselves. Phenomena such as sensory processing disorder, sensory integration disorder, sensory discrimination disorder, and sensory defensiveness are noted, and autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a label not uncommonly attached to the former terms.
The fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) does not include a discrete diagnosis to apply to children who have sensory differences, (meaning that they have difficulties regulating sensory input and such difficulties affect their ability to successfully relate to the world around them), but these differences are now part of the diagnostic criteria for ASD. The literature indicates that a majority of youth with ASD demonstrate features of sensory overresponsiveness ( JAMA Psychiatry. 2015 Aug;72:778-86 ), and providers should rightfully be concerned about the possibility of autism in a youngster who is presenting with severe negative responses to auditory, visual, and/or tactile stimuli.
Notably, however, even though sensory problems are considered a feature of autism, they are not pathognomonic for the disorder, and most children with these problems are, in fact, not autistic. Children with deficits in their ability to modulate sensory stimuli can present with a wide range of emotional-behavioral problems, including externalizing behaviors and internalizing symptoms manifesting with anxiety, attention challenges, mood dysregulation, and overall poor adaptive functioning. The relationship between sensory issues (both underresponsiveness and overresponsiveness) and psychopathology is rather complicated as sensory dysfunction can exist independent of a psychiatric disorder, be a significant risk factor for the development of the disorder ( J Abnorm Child Psychol. 2009 Nov;37:1077-87 ), and have symptom overlap with the disorder.
All in all, in spite of this complexity, since the 1960’s ( Am J Occup Ther. 1964 Jan-Feb;18:6-11 ), it’s been clear that sensory dysfunction in children is associated with impairments in development, learning, and self-regulation. Parents of these children experience elevated levels of stress ( J Child Fam Stud. 2013 Oct 1;22:912-21 ), and early identification of sensory differences, psychoeducation, and referral for treatment are critical to minimize these impacts and foster positive outcomes.
Sarah is a 4-year-old girl whose mother shares concerns about her refusal to wear pants. In the setting of having no significant developmental delays, about 2 years ago, Sarah began to complain that wearing certain clothes felt “too tight” and “hurt [her] body.” These complaints were associated with increasing problems with self-care (e.g. trouble tolerating bathing and being cleaned after a bowel movement) and worsening temper outbursts. Sarah’s family suspect that she may be autistic because a cousin with similar problems has been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome.
In gathering a history and administering the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS) , it became clear that Sarah did not present with the social-communicative impairments that characterize ASD, but she did demonstrate repetitive hand flapping, troubles tolerating large social get-togethers, hypersensitivities, and a vulnerability to getting stuck when attempting to transition between activities. It is not uncommon for Sarah to use “fight-and-flight” reactions when faced with internal or external discomfort. Child Behavior Checklist data revealed multi-informant endorsement of clinical range symptoms across broad-band and narrow-band domains. Additionally, the Sensory Profile–2 yielded elevated scores in categories measuring sensory seeking and sensory sensitivity. The Sensory Profile is a standardized tool that uses caregiver and teacher-completed questionnaires to examine a child’s sensory processing abilities and provide data regarding the effect of such sensory processing on functional performance. Integrating all the available data, our team certainly appreciated Sarah’s profound sensory overresponsiveness, and a diagnosis of an unspecified anxiety disorder was provided along with consideration for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) (with teacher input needed to further investigate this possibility). The family history revealed anxiety disorders occurring both maternally and paternally. Additionally, Sarah’s mother’s acknowledged having her own similar sensory issues as a child.
Associations among anxiety, sensory overresponsiveness, and ADHD are recognized in the literature ( Am J Occup Ther. 2009 Jul-Aug;63:433-40 ) and have implications for treatment. Furthermore, there is evidence that there is a heritable aspect to sensory processing abnormalities, and tactile defensiveness is associated with fearful temperament and anxiety ( J Abnorm Child Psychol. 2006 Jun;34:393-407 ). In Sarah’s case, her intense behavioral response to ordinary sensory stimuli was striking, and she had not yet been referred for an occupational therapy evaluation, which was the primary recommendation to further assess and understand her complicated sensory profile. As one component of a comprehensive treatment plan, an occupational therapist ( www.aota.org ), by using evidence-based practices in a sensory-integration framework, could be helpful in addressing Sarah’s range of challenges and promoting positive outcomes related to socialization, behavioral regulation, and attention. Occupational therapists, with assistance from other team members, also could work with Sarah and her family on developing relaxation skills and use exposure and response prevention–oriented intervention strategies to address anxieties. Families, however, should be counseled about the limited data on the use of sensory-based therapies ( Pediatrics. 2012 Jun;129:1186-9 ); the use of parent-management training/family coaching should also be a treatment consideration to help promote overall regulatory functioning in the household.
When encountering youth with sensory-related challenges, a clinician’s diagnostic considerations should be more than just thinking about the possibility of an autism spectrum disorder. Symptoms of sensory overresponsiveness are associated with other emotional-behavioral conditions, but also can be seen without co-occurring psychopathology. With the latter, however, providers should be mindful that family-related impairments still may be quite noteworthy ( J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2011 Dec;50:1210-9 ) and associated behavior problems could be attributed incorrectly to other diagnoses (which may lead to the recommendation of ineffective and inappropriate treatments). Much more research is needed to help develop a robust framework for diagnosing and labeling sensory issues in children and studying the efficacy of available intervention strategies.
Dr. Dickerson, a child and adolescent psychiatrist, is assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont, Burlington, where he is director of the autism diagnostic clinic.