Sensory Defensiveness: What It Is and Why It Happens

sensory defensiveness

Even though sensory defensiveness sounds complicated, its name describes it all.

Sensory defensiveness is a term that refers to kids who have a negative reaction to sensory input. 

What Causes Sensory Defensiveness?

Every day, we all interact with the sights, sounds, tastes, textures, and movements around us. As we do so, our brains process this sensory information so that we can understand the world around us and respond to it. This process is called sensory integration.

sensory defensiveness spectrum

All of us process, integrate, and react to sensory information along a spectrum. For those of us without sensory processing challenges, we live closer to the middle of the spectrum. While we may stray farther to the left or right, our brains and bodies can pretty easily handle the sensory information it receives.

Kiddos that are on the far left of the spectrum have a low response to sensory input (hypo responsive to sensory input). While most of us would turn towards a tap on the shoulder, a hypo responsive kiddo may not feel the tap. Basically, a kiddo who is on the far left of the spectrum needs a lot more sensory input than is typical.

Kiddos that are on the far right of the spectrum have a high response to sensory input (hyper responsive to sensory input). While most of us would turn towards a tap on the shoulder, a hyper responsive kiddo may jump and start to have an anxiety attack. Basically, a kiddo who is on the far right of the spectrum needs a lot less sensory input than is typical.

What is the “Defensive” Part of Sensory Defensiveness About?

Imagine that you are a kiddo on the far right of the sensory input spectrum. A tap on the shoulder makes you jump, a car horn makes you panic, and an itchy shirt tag causes a meltdown in only five minutes.

We live in a sensory world. Every moment of the day, there are sights, sounds, tastes, textures, and movements to interact with. What would you do if every sensory experience you had throughout the day caused a meltdown, made you feel uncomfortable, and brought you close to panic? If I were you, I would try to avoid those experiences as much as possible. I would become defensive when faced with sensory input. Kiddos with sensory defensiveness are protecting themselves from what they feel is the threat of sensory input.

What Does Sensory Defensiveness Look Like?

Thinking of sensory defensiveness as occurring on a spectrum, we can have kiddos that are closer to the middle and show few signs of sensory defensiveness. On the other hand, we could have kiddos who are all the way to the right of the spectrum and exhibit extreme challenges with sensory input. We could also have kiddos everywhere in between. Regardless of where they fall on the spectrum, here are some common signs of sensory defensiveness.

How Can I Help My Kiddo with Sensory Defensiveness?

If you believe your kiddo is struggling with sensory defensiveness, it’s really important to get a formal assessment from an occupational therapist. Sensory work is extremely personalized and tailored to the exact challenges and desires of those involved.

If your kiddo struggles more with tactile input than auditory input, their treatment will look different than if it were the opposite. Even if two kiddos can both be called sensory defensive, this catch-all term doesn’t properly describe what each kiddo is experiencing and struggling with.

Be a Sensory Detective

Whether you’re waiting for your kiddo’s first OT appointment or you already have an established occupational therapist, always be aware of the sensory experiences that your child struggles with.

Even if you have appointments three times a week, this is only three hours out of an entire week that your OT can see how your child is progressing. In addition, OTs can evaluate progress in the context of a clinic. Parents can offer crucial information about how kiddos are doing outside of the clinic in their day-to-day activities.

When taking sensory notes, here are some things to include:

By taking extensive notes about your kiddo’s daily sensory experiences, you can give your OT some crucial information that will lead to more effective treatment.

Do you know what to expect from occupational therapy? Read the post to the right to learn what you should know for your child’s next occupational therapy appointment.


Diana is a registered occupational therapist who specializes in sensory processing disorders and autism.

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