What Is Sensory Defensiveness?

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  • Written By: Jacob Queen
  • Edited By: Lauren Fritsky
  • Last Modified Date: 05 November 2018
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Sensory defensiveness is a disorder where people experience relatively normal inputs for the senses in a way that makes them difficult to tolerate. For example, the individual may find it difficult to tolerate loud noises, or suffer extreme discomfort when enduring any kind of physical contact, even if it’s just from the person’s own clothing. Stimulation-related disorders can potentially affect any sense, but those diagnosed with sensory defensiveness generally have symptoms involving several of the senses. This disorder is mostly known for affecting children, but research has shown that symptoms actually persist into adulthood even though people may tolerate them better as they get older. There are still some gaps in the scientific understanding of this disorder, but experts suggest that a treatment regimen involving careful control of exposure to sensory inputs has produced some level of success.


Most people who have sensory defensiveness may have one or two senses that are especially vulnerable to overstimulation, but they will often have some degree of symptoms in several areas. The disorder can be very different from one person to the next. For example, some people may have a vulnerability to loud noises, while others may only react negatively to very high-pitched sounds, and some may find any kind of physical contact uncomfortable while others are only affected by touching things with cold temperatures or certain textures. Other common symptoms include light sensitivity, and an intolerance for certain tastes or textures in the mouth. Overall, this is a disorder where each individual’s exact symptoms are often very specific and somewhat unique.

Originally, sensory defensiveness was thought to be a disorder that primarily affected children. Some children show greater level of discomfort or anxiety when exposed to high levels of sensory stimulation, and since these reactions seemed to decline as the children grew up, doctors assumed that the children were recovering. More recent studies have shown that children who suffer from these sensitivities don’t tend to actually recover as they become adults. They may learn various coping mechanisms with age, but they’re still often experiencing the discomforting effects, and this can have a big impact on their lives.

Some people end up changing their lifestyle in significant ways because of sensory defensiveness. For example, some people will take drastic measures to avoid crowds because they can’t tolerate that level of stimulation, and this can impact their social life in a very negative way. Some people might also have lifelong difficulties with nervousness and anxiety because of their inability to tolerate the level of stimuli around them, and they may be forced to make odd life choices in order to avoid certain stimuli that they find particularly uncomfortable.

According to experts, the best current treatment available for people who suffer from sensory defensiveness is something they refer to as a "sensory diet." This involves a mixture of sensory avoidance with purposefully planned periods of stillness or quiet, along with intentional exposure to particular stimulation in order to make the person less sensitive. This is still a relatively new approach, but experts suggest that it has been successful in many cases.



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