Sensory Spotlight: Auditory (Sound)

This is the second installment of our nine-part Sensory Spotlight series.

The auditory system is responsible for the body’s ability to perceive, process, and understand sound. Children with auditory processing issues may be able to hear background noises others tune out or can’t detect, have a hard time controlling the volume of their own voices, or experience delays in their speech and linguistic development.

Auditory Seeking Behavior

  • Seeks out noisy or busy environments
  • Makes loud, repetitive, or specific sounds (snapping, clapping, etc.)

How to Support

  • Schedule times throughout the day to sing, clap, and make noise.
  • Allow music and television to be played at an increased, but safe, volume.
  • Keep headphones or earbuds handy and allow listening to music during otherwise quiet or boring times (waiting in long lines, on family car trips, etc.).

Auditory Avoiding Behavior

  • Seeks out quiet or secluded environments
  • Is bothered by loud, repetitive, or specific sounds (appliances, clapping, etc.)
  • Is startled or frightened by unexpected sounds (alarms, laughter, etc.)
  • Is bothered or distracted by background noises others can’t detect

How to Support

  • Schedule quiet times and breaks throughout the day.
  • Encourage using earplugs, earbuds, or noise canceling headphones when needed.
  • Give advanced warning of loud or unexpected sounds whenever possible.
  • Use white noise, a fan, or other soundproofing in the home to muffle background noise.
  • Keep headphones or earbuds handy and encourage listening to calming music or soft sounds in crowded, noisy environments.

Auditory Discrimination Challenges

  • Speaks too loudly or too softly
  • Appears aloof, distracted, or detached from others
  • Appears confused or unresponsive when given directions
  • Has difficulty distinguishing between background and foreground noises
  • Has difficulty distinguishing between similar sounding words (cat, rat, sat, etc.)

How to Support

  • Teach your child to use visual cues to stay safe and know what to do next (look for signage, flashing lights, other children lining up at the door, etc.).
  • Collaborate with your child’s teachers on ways to reinforce key concepts and revisit lectures or lessons (share presentations, audio recordings, notes with key terms, etc.)
  • Play the “same or different game” to help your child practice telling the difference between similar sounding words (“Ball and fall. Are these words the same or different?”).

Keep in mind, many children with SPD demonstrate a combination of sensitivities and seeking/avoiding behaviors, depending on their level of arousal and how familiar they are with their current environment.

Further Reading:

Auditory Sensitivity: 3 Things You Should Know

Assistive Technology for Auditory Processing Disorder

Sensory Spotlight: What Is SPD?

This is the first installment of our nine-part Sensory Spotlight series.

Sensory processing occurs when the brain receives and organizes information from external sources, such as light or sound, and internal bodily cues, such as hunger or balance. Individuals with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) do not respond to this everyday sensory information the same way most people do. They may feel bombarded or assaulted by even the smallest bit of stimulation, or they might be unable to recognize even very extreme sensations or changes in their environment. Studies suggest as many as 1 in 20 people have sensory processing issues, and symptoms are typically much more pronounced in children.

Children with SPD often have a hard time fitting in with their peer group. They might show signs of anxiety or depression, be withdrawn, struggle socially and academically, or appear clumsy. Many children have learned to cope with their symptoms in ways that might appear odd to others, such as rocking, constantly learning on walls or furniture, sucking on their thumbs or other objects, etc.

SPD is generally broken down into the three patterns and thirteen subtypes listed below. Keep in mind the exact symptoms will vary greatly from one individual to the next. Many people with SPD demonstrate a combination of sensitivities and seeking/avoiding behaviors, depending on their level of arousal and how familiar they are with their current environment.

Pattern 1: Sensory Modulation Disorder (SMD)


Sensory Over-Responsivity

Over-responsive individuals, or avoiders, are hyperaware of sensory input and may have extreme or upsetting reactions to even mild stimulation, such as crying out in pain while brushing their hair or gagging at very faint smells. Avoiders often feel overloaded and overwhelmed by everyday situations and may appear anxious, withdrawn, or defensive as a result.


Sensory Under-Responsivity

Those who are under-responsive have difficulties detecting and/or responding to sensory input in a timely manner. They might not notice that the lighting or temperature in the room has changed, for example, or that they’ve bumped into something and injured themselves. As a result, under-responsive individuals often appear distracted, dismissive, or clumsy.

Sensory Craving

Sensory cravers, or seekers, have a seemingly inexhaustible appetite for sensory stimulation, though they tend to become more keyed up and deregulated as they take in more input. Seekers usually demonstrate behaviors associated with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), such low impulse control and constant moving, fidgeting, bumping into things, or fiddling with objects.

Pattern 2: Sensory-Based Motor Disorder (SBMD)

Postural Disorder

Postural disorder affects the body’s ability to stabilize itself and maintain a sense of balance. Individuals with this subtype often have problems slouching or bad posture. They might also appear to be weak, move awkwardly, or have extremely low endurance.

Dyspraxia (Motor Planning Problems)

Those with dyspraxia have difficulty planning and performing new, nonhabitual gross and fine motor tasks. They might appear to have extremely poor hand-eye coordination, problems with concentration, and take much longer than their peers to learn a new skill.

Pattern 3: Sensory Discrimination Disorder (SDD)

Individuals with this pattern have difficulty recognizing and interpreting sensory information. They’re often unable to gauge the physical differences between objects, such as size, color, shape, or distance. They might be unaware of the pressure or force they’re exerting at a given moment and appear awkward, clumsy, and prone to spilling drinks or breaking toys.

SDD is further broken down into eight subtypes, one for each sensory system:

We’ll be taking a deeper dive into each of these systems, including strategies for supporting children with SPD, as our Sensory Spotlight series continues. Stay tuned!

Additional Resources:

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