What is sensory defensiveness? It’s a negative reaction to a type of sensation, such as touch, sound, taste, movement, etc. But everyone experiences adverse reactions to stimuli sometimes. If someone dropped a slug in your hand or you bit into a piece of bad fruit, you would probably have a negative reaction to that sensation! Sensory defensiveness generally refers to an overreaction by the sensory system; in other words, the average person would not have a negative reaction to this sensation, but a person who is sensory defensive does. A child with oral sensory defensiveness will have negative reaction to sensations – usually taste or touch – in and around their mouth. While many children may avoid leafy greens or complex dishes when they’re younger, a child with oral sensory defensiveness will be especially picky, and may refuse to eat all but a few foods. They may also refuse to brush their teeth or use utensils, and they may view new oral/ sensory sensations with fear and anxiety. So, how can you tell whether your pick eater is sensory defensive? First, it’s useful to know there are two main types of oral sensory issues: hypersensitivity and hyposensitivity.
A child with oral hypersensitivity will have increased sensory perceptions. They are very (hyper) sensitive to different tastes, pressures, and textures, so much so that it may cause them pain or discomfort. Because of this, they are afraid of trying new foods and may avoid eating at all. Oral hypersensitivity is often used synonymously with sensory defensiveness, since defensive behavior is one of the main symptoms of hypersensitivity. More specific signs you may observe in your child are:
Oral hyposensitivity is the opposite, where the child has less oral sensory perception. They find it difficult to feel or recognize sensations in their mouth, or have “mouth numbness.” For most hyposensitive children, their behavior becomes sensory seeking rather than sensory defensive, because they seek out highly stimulating tastes and textures that they can actually feel. However, oral hyposensitivity can still lead to sensory defensiveness. This usually happens when the child is introduced to new sensations they haven’t experienced before, and they become fearful or anxious about the strange new feeling. Signs that your child is orally hyposensitive include:
For both hypersensitivity and hyposensitivity, early treatment is required to help speech and feeding development. Hypersensitive children may avoid foods necessary for a healthy diet and have difficulty maintaining oral hygiene. They may also encounter speech development issues as they avoid new oral sensations necessary for speech. Hyposensitive children may experience delays in speech and feeding development, and they can also become orally defensive just like hypersensitive children. Determining whether or not picky eating is caused by sensory defensiveness can be difficult, which is why it’s important to have a trained occupational therapist and speech language pathologist evaluate your child. An OT/ SLP team then works together with the parents, caregivers, pediatrician, & dentist (when necessary) to develop an intervention plan appropriate for each kiddo.