Each of us has the ability to sense potential danger. Our senses tell us if the temperature is too cold or too hot, if we are falling off the chair, or when food has gone bad. At these times, we respond appropriately to protect ourselves from harm.

Some children have a tendency to overprotect or defend themselves. They respond to certain harmless sensations as if they were irritating, dangerous or even painful. This is called ‘sensory defensiveness’. Sensory defensiveness is simply the over-activation of our protective senses. Each individual with sensory defensiveness has a unique response style. They may exhibit patterns of avoidance, sensory-seeking, fear, anxiety or even aggression. These symptoms fluctuate widely and are often misidentified as being emotional reactions.

  • Tactile defensiveness is an overreaction to touch. This may result in avoiding touch from others, dislike of crowds, irritation when having hair washed or cut or avoidance of certain types of clothing.
  • Oral defensiveness is an avoidance of certain textures of food unique to each individual. For example, some children will avoid soft creamy foods while others avoid rough texture.
  • Gravitational insecurity is the fear of changes in head position or movement. Children can be fearful of their feet being off the ground or having their head tipped forwards or backwards.
  • Postural insecurity is a fear or avoidance of certain movements of the body because of poor postural control. This may result in difficulties with balance or fear of unstable surfaces.
  • Auditory defensiveness is over sensitivity to certain sounds. For example, vacuum cleaners, fire alarms or the sound of the toilet flushing.


Other sensory areas affected include taste, temperature, vibration, visual and smell. Sensory defensiveness can range from very mild to being so severe that affects every aspect of a child’s life.

Treatment requires specialist assessment and intervention by an occupational therapist trained in sensory integration. Treatment generally includes:

  • An initial assessment or consultation
  • Education for the family
  • A home programme designed by an occupational therapist (often called a “Sensory Diet”)
  • Occupational therapy treatment sessions


Credit: Wilbarger & Wilbarger