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Moving and SensingMoving and Sensing

Moving & Sensing Problems in Children

Young boy doing a bicep curl with a weight.
Anna Kroncke
Anna Kroncke
Ph.D., NCSP
Last modified 23 Aug 2022
Published 27 Apr 2022

What are Moving and Sensing Skills in Childhood?

Moving and sensing skills in childhood include gross motor skills (running, jumping, climbing), fine motor skills (handwriting, stringing beads, building with blocks), and sensory regulation (responding to lights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touch sensations). 

Children can have strengths and weaknesses in several of these areas without any cause for concern. In the articles that follow, you can learn about the types of sensorimotor skills that can impact your child’s development and whether or not intervention is needed.

Moving and sensing problems in childhood are delays in your child’s sensorimotor development. Activities, like walking and running, writing, drawing, and catching a ball, are related to motor skills. Additionally, children with motor challenges often have difficulty with spatial skills like reading a map and completing a puzzle. 

Visual-spatial skills are included in the sensorimotor area. This may include visual processing skills like seeing how visual images make up parts of a whole. For example, understanding a pie chart or learning about the phases of the moon. Children with these challenges may need help remembering information seen in a graph or other visual display. 

Finally, sensory processing is included in the sensorimotor articles that follow. Our sensory and motor systems are integrated and connected. Children with sensory sensitivities may have differences in terms of sensory processing of things we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. 

The articles in this section include topics such as coordination, handwriting, body space awareness, and sensory sensitivity.

Types of Moving and Sensing Problems in Childhood 

When there are issues in the sensorimotor area, specific skills can be considered that may further highlight and clarify where issues are happening and what parents can do to help with each one.

In the articles that follow, we will review the following types of moving and sensing issues in more detail.

  • Body space awareness: the ability to know where your body is in space and in relation to other people and objects
  • Handwriting: the ability to write letters, words, sentences legibly
  • Coordination: the ability to walk, run, and jump in a fluid manner. This skill impacts performance in athletic tasks like throwing and catching a ball
  • Depth perception: the ability to see what is coming and judge the proper distance in sports or play
  • Drawing: the ability to legibly draw figures, color, or sketch pictures
  • Motor planning: the ability to plan and execute motor movements
  • Sensory regulation: the ability to manage sense cues in the environment without feeling overwhelmed or the need for more input
    • Sensory sensitivity – feeling overwhelmed and dysregulated by noises, touch, tastes, and smells
    • Sensory seeking the act of seeking sensory stimulation via running, jumping, weighted blanket
  • Central coherence: the ability to grasp the big picture and integrate information, rather than focusing on tiny details
  • Visual tracking: the ability to track information visually, such as reading off of a PowerPoint slide, reading a book, following visuals that are moving through space
  • Finger movements: the tendency to use fine motor movements that are unusual and do not serve a purpose are often a sign of a developmental disability or sensory issue
  • Repetitive behavior: the tendency to repeat movements like pacing, arm flapping, bouncing that serve no clear purpose and are excessive in frequency
  • Tics: the tendency to use arhythmic motor movements or vocal sound that is sudden, not voluntary and reflexive
  • Low tone: the tendency to have a very bendy or  poor posture due to low muscle tone

Causes of Motor and Sensory Issues in Childhood

As a parent, it is important to know that not all motor issues have a significant impact on your child’s functioning and well-being. Some kids may have more or less coordination or talents in athletics. If the child is doing just fine and simply prefers indoor activities like reading or coloring, motor challenges may not present any significant concerns.

When motor challenges cause significant distress, there may be a diagnosis that could explain the problem. For example, children with Learning Disabilities, Cognitive Deficits, Developmental Coordination Disorder, or Autism Spectrum Disorder may have motor skills difficulties. All of these conditions would impact motor skills differently. Knowing the root cause can help determine the best course of treatment or support for visual-spatial and motor challenges. 

Learning disabilities: a child with Dyslexia, Dysgraphia or Dyscalculia may have visual processing or motor planning deficits that impact academics in reading, writing, or math. 

Cognitive deficits: a child with intellectual, cognitive and adaptive deficits may also have issues with motor skills, visual-spatial awareness, or processing speed. Cognition includes aspects of visual and motor processing. Although verbal and nonverbal reasoning abilities are the most essential aptitudes in a child’s cognitive development.  

Developmental coordination disorder: a child with visual-motor integration and motor coordination challenges may have issues with fine motor tasks like handwriting, cutting, coloring, or drawing. 

Autism spectrum disorder: a child with autism, may have  sensory processing challenges and difficulties with motor planning. Some children with Autism have restricted and repetitive behaviors such as spinning, tapping, or unique hand movements. Children with ASD often have delays in motor development and may have coordination challenges as well.

Motor planning: a child may struggle with catching a ball because of challenges with gross motor planning. If a child has deficits in motor planning, the parts of the brain (parietal lobe and basal ganglia) responsible for planning and executing gross motor movements may not be working smoothly. Gross motor planning is the ability to visually make these judgments and then to direct one’s body toward the intended goal.

Visual tracking: a child who struggles to visually see the ball moving through the sky (visual tracking) or to judge how far away it is (depth perception) is having challenges in visual motor skills and spatial awareness.

Vestibular processing: a child with difficulties in the vestibular system tends to miscalculate the space between themselves and other objects (personal space). They have trouble keeping track of where they are and where they are going. They often crash into things or bump into people, and may appear very clumsy.

Sensory processing problems: a child with difficulties regulating sensory input have the tendency to be under or over sensitive to  sight, sound, smell, taste, and texture. Differences in sensory processing can have a major impact on day-to-day life. Certain stimuli may not be well tolerated or may not be noticed at all depending on over or under sensitivity. Children who are very sensitive to sensory input may be described as experiencing sensory overload. 

What to Do About Moving and Sensing Problems in Childhood

The first thing to ask when thinking about motor skills deficits is, “Does this problem get in the way?” Some children may not be overly coordinated or into athletic activities. That can be just fine so long as the child can participate in the community in any way they want. If motor skills deficits do indeed interfere with your child’s functioning, there are activities and treatments that can help.

What to do about motor issues in childhood

Occupational therapy (OT): OT helps to strengthen fine motor skills like writing, drawing, and stringing beads. Occupational therapists can also help to provide sensory input or modifications, work to strengthen the core muscles, and address bilateral coordination (using both sides of the body) during everyday tasks.

Physical therapy (PT): PT is generally recommended for challenges with ambulation and gait, such as running, walking, and large body movements. If your child has significant impact from a genetic condition, or disorder, a full treatment plan would include physical therapy and other types of therapies to address their cognitive, social-emotional, or speech delays.

At home: At home, parents can encourage participation in sports that do not have as much emphasis on these areas. Perhaps avoiding team softball or soccer will take away the pressure to be well coordinated. Meanwhile, sports like running, swimming, yoga, dance, and martial arts may allow your child to improve his or her confidence and to strengthen his or her body. Coordination can improve with strengthening and activity. Work with your child to find a sport that fits their interest. Getting into the rhythm of being active will form good fitness habits that can continue throughout your child’s life.

Additional ideas to help improve your child’s motor skills

  • Breaking down the task and practicing step by step
  • Playing balloon tap back and forth with your hands or rackets
  • Making a fun game out of being statues. Having the child copy the exact pose you are in, and then you copy the pose your child makes with their body
  • Engaging in certain sensory activities prior to completing gross motor tasks can help increase coordination and body awareness. These can include: wall-push ups, crab walking, or carrying heavy objects (books, weighted stuffed animals, or laundry)
  • Having the child plan and complete an obstacle course
  • Encouraging the child to plan a craft activity from start to finish and complete it
  • Board games such as Don’t Break the Ice, Feed the Woozle, or Jenga
  • Completing dot to dots and mazes
  • Lacing cards
  • Stacking legos and blocks
  • Climbing through hula hoops in various positions

What to do about your child’s sensory challenges

Pursue only evidence-based treatments. A comprehensive treatment plan may include some combination of occupational therapy, physical therapy, behavioral therapy, play therapy, language therapy, tutoring, school-based supports, social groups, or other therapies. Understanding your child’s profile in its entirety can help you to prioritize treatment and to look for supports that are research-based. Many treatments that may be suggested to you might not have evidence to support their use in treating children.

For Autism Spectrum Disorder, more than any other diagnosis, many treatments are suggested that may not have merit. You can use a trusted website to check out a treatment and to see whether it has met the standard set for research-based, effective treatment. See the Association for Science in Autism Treatment for more information on evidence-based treatments for autism. 

Food sensitivities

Introduce new foods a little at a time. Be consistent and be patient. The most common method that occupational therapists use to teach children to tolerate foods is the Sequential Oral Sensory approach (SOS).

“The program allows a child to interact with food in a playful, non-stressful way, beginning with the ability to tolerate the food in the room and in front of him/her; then moving on to touching, kissing, and eventually tasting and eating foods” [2].

Introduction of foods follows the following hierarchy:

  • tolerates food
  • interacts with food
  • smells food
  • touches food
  • tastes food
  • eats food

You might first simply require the child to tolerate the food on their plate and then interact with it several times before actually eating it. Many children need to try a new food 12-20 times before deciding that they like it. Don’t give up.

When introducing new foods, the SOS model encourages playing with your food and doesn’t view this play as a bad thing. This approach never forces children to eat food. It also encourages fun activities prior to a feeding session:

1) Gross motor movement (swinging, obstacle course)

2) Oral motor activity (blowing bubbles or using whistles)

Clothing sensitivity

When dressing your child who is sensitive to collars and waistbands, make sure you offer some give and take. Maybe this time, your daughter will be willing to wear some dress shoes but refuses to wear a skirt. Perhaps, the next time, your daughter will wear a skirt as long as it has an elastic waistband. Progressively and patiently adding sensory inputs can help your child develop tolerance. Allowing for these concessions can go a long way in developing flexibility in your child and in avoiding conflict. Some sensitive kiddos feel like wearing a tighter shirt (e.g., Spandex) under long sleeve shirts or coats helps them tolerate clothing.

If your child cannot stand scratchy tags, cut them out. Some sensory issues are simply not worth fighting. Try some simple strategies like removing tags before pursuing expensive treatments.

Sensitivity to light and sound

Be aware of situations that just won’t work for your child. If you have a sensory-sensitive child, you may avoid certain places. For example, a sensory-sensitive kid may not be able to handle a movie theater, luau, or a concert. As a parent, it can be difficult at times to steer clear of these activities, but it may be worth it to avoid the meltdowns, throwing up, or intense anxiety these may cause your child. If this activity is very important to your family, consider introducing these activities in baby steps, as described above.

When to Seek Help for Moving and Sensing Problems in Childhood 

If you feel that your child may have a sensory or motor problem, and you have tried some of the ideas in ‘What to do’ above without improvement, you may consider seeking further help. A discussion with your child’s classroom teacher and/or your school Occupational Therapist may be helpful in seeing the impact of sensory or motor challenges in the school setting.

If you have these concerns, the school team has these concerns and things are not getting considerably better, it is recommended that your child have a comprehensive psychological evaluation to consider the following: ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Trauma or PTSD, Developmental (Motor) Coordination Disorder, Anxiety Disorder, or Developmental Delay. Any of these disabilities may be the root cause of your child’s sensory problems. A licensed psychologist will not only determine which diagnoses are relevant for your child but will also make recommendations for treatment of that disability and any co-occurring sensory difficulties. You may need a psychotherapist, occupational therapist or physical therapist to help with the challenges your child is experiencing. 

Resources for Moving and Sensing Problems

Children’s Hospital of Colorado- Swallowing

www.childrenscolorado.org/doctors-and-departments/departments/ears-nose-and-throat/clinics/fees/

Moyer, Lindsay (2013). 7 Developmental steps to teaching your child to catch.

Debrabant, Julie; Vingerhoets, Guy; Van Waelvelde, Hilde; Leemans, Alexander; Taymans, Tom; Caeyenberghs, Karen. 

Brain Connectomics of Visual-Motor Deficits in Children with Developmental Coordination Disorder. The Journal of Pediatrics, Volume 169, 21 – 27. E2.

Linder Ed.D., Toni & Petersen-Smith Ph.D., Ann (2008) Administration Guide for TPBA2 & 

Kroncke, Anna P., & Willard, Marcy & Huckabee, Helena (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San 

Trail (2011). 

Twice exceptional gifted children: Understanding, teaching, and counseling gifted students. Prufrock, Waco, TX.

Barkley, Russell A. (2013). Taking charge of ADHD, 3rd edition: The complete, authoritative guide for parents.

Ozonoff, Sally & Dawson, Geraldine & McPartland, James C. (2014). A parent’s guide to high functioning autism spectrum disorder: How to meet the challenges and help your child thrive.

http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/pediatrics/129/6/1186.full.pdf

Association for Science in Autism Treatment:

Retrieved: http://www.asatonline.org

Toomey, Kay (Retrieved 2017). Sequential Oral Sensory approach to feeding.

Retrieved: http://sosapproach-conferences.com/about-us/the-sos-approach/

And scholarly article can be found: http://sosapproach-conferences.com/resources/articles/

Wong, Connie, et al (2015). Evidence-Based Practices for Children, Youth, and Young Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Comprehensive Review.

Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. http://fpg.unc.edu/sites/fpg.unc.edu/files/resources/reports-and-policy-briefs/2014-EBP-Report.pdf

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