Hypersensitivity is a term that is often used and even more often misused. It is usually applied to a person who is sensitive when it comes to their emotions or senses, whether or not they actually display the characteristics of hypersensitivity. And yet, the resulting difficulties are real and complicate the daily lives of those who experience them.
Since hypersensitivity is a broad and complex subject, this article focuses on sensory hypersensitivity. As a result, we will address hypersensitivity that concerns the senses, which is generally treated by a professional expert, an occupational therapist.
What is sensory hypersensitivity?
Hypersensitivity manifests as hyperreactivity, i.e., an overly intense or prolonged reaction to a stimulus. To date, sensory hypersensitivity is not recognized as an official diagnosis in the DSM-IV, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
However, it is estimated that 5% of children under the age of 7 (Ahn, Miller, et al., 2004) and 16% of children aged 7 to 11 (Ben-Sasson et al., 2009) are affected by this condition.
According to the work of Anna Jean Ayre, an occupational therapist who took an interest in the subject in the ’70s, hypersensitivity stems from difficulty processing sensations in the central nervous system.
The nervous system receives, analyzes, and reacts to sensory information. However, someone with hypersensitivity will have reactions that are not proportional to the level of danger. That is why it is also called hyperreactivity. There is an error in the processing of sensory information. Hyperreactivity can manifest as agitation, opposition or refusal, meltdowns, isolation, avoidance, or a failure to listen due to over-stimulation.
According to research, there are two explanations for hyperreactivity:
- In some cases, the reactivity threshold is lower than average, meaning that the person perceives a stimulus overload well before the average person.
- The other reason is that stimulus filtration does not work properly, letting in too much information. Most people are able to ignore unimportant ambient noise. However, people with ineffective filtration let the stimuli in, which creates an overload.
In all cases, hyperreactivity is very disruptive to the daily life of the child who experiences it. It affects their energy, concentration, comfort, and sensory and motor development, and also has an impact on everyone around them.
How hyperreactivity manifests in different senses?
The senses and sensory processing act as an alarm that helps us function and survive. In addition to the five well-known senses (sight, smell, taste, hearing, and touch), there are three others that are often overlooked:
- proprioception, i.e., the perception of the body’s position in space
- the vestibular sense, which provides information about gravity and the movements of the head and body
- interoception, i.e., the perception of the body’s internal state
Hyperreactivity affects all senses, but is most common in touch and hearing. Here are some examples of how hyperreactivity manifests in different senses:
It is interesting to note that in most cases, activities that involve proprioception (rolling, push-ups, walking like an animal, tight hugs, etc.) have a calming effect.
How to help hypersensitive children?
There are a variety of measures that can be taken to make life easier for children living with hypersensitivity. These measures can target the individuals, the environment, or the activities, and must always be tailored to the person’s needs, as identified through observation. The services of an occupational therapist are recommended to determine the best measures to implement.
First and foremost, it is important for the child to feel understood and to be told that their feelings are valid. To that end, you can ask them a few questions to encourage them to verbalize their discomfort, or use intensity scales. In all cases, given that the child is already overloaded, it is important to limit verbal interaction and respect their pace.
One option is to teach the child relaxation strategies beforehand, when they are calm and receptive. Relaxation and self-regulation strategies can help them feel better when they experience overload in future. However, it is important to consider the child’s reaction to these exercises, since everyone reacts differently.
Another option is to adapt the child’s physical environment to make it calm and reassuring. When possible, leave more space for hyperreactive children in class and during transitions (such as changing in the locker room), try to reduce or remove sources of stimulation, and encourage the other children in the group to be mindful of the hypersensitive student’s vulnerabilities.
Hyperreactive students may tend to avoid situations that cause them discomfort. In some cases, the avoidance causes motor delays, and as a result, it will be impossible to completely remove the source of stimulus. However, it will be necessary to gradually expose the child to the uncomfortable situation, while respecting their pace, so that they can develop fully. Also, bear in mind that predictability is important for students with hypersensitivities. Using visual time tools is strongly recommended.
To alleviate the fatigue hypersensitive students experience, it is a good idea to offer breaks and work with their families to ensure that they get enough sleep.
Physical education is a subject that particularly stimulates the senses, which is why Lü offers tools and settings to make gym periods easier:
- You can make visual and auditory adjustments for your students in your Lü settings. You can choose whether or not to play music and sound effects. You can even choose the intensity of the whistle volume and the lights in your gym.
- To help you teach relaxation strategies, Lü offers the Gaïa application, which focuses on Jacobson’s progressive relaxation, as well as several Wörlds. These include Stress Management, which explores the heart coherence breathing technique; Butterflying, a relaxation where the narration can be displayed using the numbered keys on your keyboard remote; and our Yoga activity.
Hypersensitivity never goes away, but those who experience it can improve their quality of life with the right self-regulation strategies and the maturity they acquire over the years, which will help them adapt to discomfort.