Sensory Issues in Teenagers: Symptoms, Treatment and Support

Written by Dr Lucy Russell DClinPsyc CPsychol AFBPsS

Dr Lucy Russell Clinical Psychologist Founder of They Are The Future
Author: Dr Lucy Russell, Clinical Psychologist

Navigating the teenage years can be challenging, and if your teenager is dealing with sensory differences in everyday life, it can feel even more overwhelming.

Coping with these challenges requires teens – and the adults around them – to understand their unique sensory needs and find helpful strategies and adaptations in their day-to-day life.

By learning more about your teen’s sensory issues, you can better advocate for them and ensure adaptations are made to their environment, both in and outside the home.

I’m a child psychologist who has spent the last twenty years working with neurodivergent teens with sensory differences. In this article I’ll take you through everything you need to know as a parent.

a girl in a theatre audience wearing ear defenders

What Are Sensory Issues?

Sensory Input and Processing

Sensory issues refer to differences in processing information from the environment through your senses, such as sight, touch, sound, taste, and smell.

This can lead to heightened or decreased sensitivity to sensory input, impacting daily life and social interactions.

These differences are often associated with conditions like autism, ADHD, or sensory processing disorder (SPD).

Sensory Seeking and Avoiding in Teenagers

Based on their sensory needs, your young teen may be categorised into two groups:

  • Sensory seeking: If you have a strong need or craving for certain sensory inputs.
  • Sensory avoiding: If you actively try to minimise exposure to certain inputs.

Sensory seeking teens might seek to explore new experiences like textures, and tastes to satisfy their craving for input.

On the other hand, sensory avoiders might restrict their food choices, feel overwhelmed by loud noises, or be bothered by certain fabrics in clothing.

Many people, however, have a mixed profile. In other words, they seek some input and yet are sensitive to other input.

a teen boy at his desk looking stressed

The Nervous System

The nervous system plays a pivotal role in how young adults and teens, like Scott, process sensory information from their surroundings.

In instances where this system encounters difficulties, it can lead to sensory processing problems.

This means that the brain might struggle to accurately receive, filter, or interpret the sensory input it gets.

In these cases, the child struggles to cope with the barrage of sensory information, which can manifest in different ways.

Some might become hypersensitive to light or sound, finding what others consider normal to be unbearably intense.

Others might seek out more sensory stimulation to satisfy their under-responsive sensory system.

Sensory Overload in Teenagers

When your brain struggles to process sensory inputs, it can lead to a state called sensory overload.

During sensory overload, you may experience heightened emotions, anxiety, and even physical pain.

Sensory meltdowns are a common outcome of sensory overload, sometimes involving inconsolable crying, mood swings, or hyperventilation.

teen girl overwhelmed and upset being comforted by her mother

Your Child’s Sensory Profile

Identifying your child’s sensory profile is an essential step for parents of children who exhibit sensory differences.

This process involves careful observation of your child’s behavior in response to various sensory stimuli over a period of time.

For example:

Textures: Notice if your child reacts differently to various types of clothing or objects they touch. For example, they might withdraw or become distressed when wearing wool but appear comfortable and calm with soft cotton.

Sounds: Observe your child’s response to different levels and types of noise. They might cover their ears and show signs of distress in environments with loud music or crowded places, yet remain serene in quieter, more controlled settings.

Visual Stimuli: Pay attention to how your child responds to bright lights or visually busy environments. They might squint, become agitated, or try to avoid brightly lit areas, preferring dimly lit or more visually subdued spaces.

teen boy running hands along clothing railing

By noting which textures, sounds, lights, or other sensory inputs trigger a positive or adverse reaction, you can begin to map out the unique sensory landscape your child navigates daily.

Understanding these sensory preferences and sensitivities allows you to better support their child by creating environments and routines that accommodate their sensory needs.

You can also liaise with school to ensure their needs are met in this environment.

Recognizing the nuances in your child’s sensory profile also opens pathways for more effective communication and support strategies, tailored to their individual experiences.

This tailored approach can significantly impact your child’s comfort and ability to engage with the world around them.

Occupational therapists often specialise in sensory processing and you mat find that an assessment for your child will help you gain a thorough understanding of their sensory profile.

Psychologists (like me!) also regularly have a strong understanding of sensory integration, and work closely with occupational therapists.

Sensory Issues in Teens: Case Study – Scott

Scott, aged 15, navigates the world differently due to his unique sensory system. Common sensory experiences that others barely notice, like the rustling of paper or the texture of fabric, can be intense and overwhelming for him.

This heightened sensitivity is a hallmark of sensory processing problems, which affect how Scott perceives and responds to his environment.

In his daily life, Scott grapples with his sensory processing challenges.

Tasks like selecting clothing become daunting tasks, as he must find materials that won’t aggravate his sensory system.

Similarly, bustling environments like his school cafeteria can escalate into sensory overload, making focus and social interaction difficult.

To mitigate the impact of sensory processing problems, Scott and his support network have been proactive. They’ve introduced adaptive strategies, like utilizing noise-canceling headphones in loud spaces and opting for clothing made of soft, non-irritating materials. These adjustments are crucial in helping Scott manage his sensory experiences more comfortably.

Scott’s story sheds light on the complexities of living with sensory processing problems and underscores the importance of empathy, understanding, and tailored support. It’s a reminder of the resilience individuals like Scott display as they navigate a world not always attuned to their sensory needs.


What is Sensory Processing Disorder?

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is when the brain has significant difficulties handling sensory information, leading to extreme sensitivities or insensitivities that disrupt daily life. Individuals with SPD may find ordinary stimuli overwhelmingly intense or barely noticeable, affecting their interaction with the world.

SPD vs Sensory Processing Issues

Sensory processing differences, on the other hand, encompass a wider range of less severe sensory challenges that don’t meet SPD’s clinical criteria.

While these differences can cause discomfort or distraction, they generally don’t hinder everyday functioning to the same extent and can often be managed with simple adjustments.

The key difference lies in the severity and impact on daily life, with SPD requiring more specialized intervention.

girl stressed at dinner table

What Does SPD in Teenagers Look Like?

In teenagers with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), extreme sensory sensitivities can significantly impact daily life.

For example, they may find the sound of others eating not just distracting but intolerable, leading to heightened stress or discomfort during meals.

Similarly, strong reactions to food smells, which might go unnoticed by others, can make communal eating spaces like school cafeterias particularly challenging.

These intense sensory aversions can affect many aspects of a teen’s life, from the clothes they can tolerate wearing to their ability to concentrate in brightly lit or noisy classrooms.

Recognizing these extreme sensitivities as manifestations of SPD, rather than mere preferences or behavioral issues, is so important for providing the right support and accommodations to help teens navigate their environments more comfortably.

After all, we want our teens to thrive, not just survive.

Here are some common symptoms that teenagers with SPD might experience:

  • Overreaction to sensory stimuli.
  • Unexpected emotional outbursts.
  • Struggles with personal space and social interactions.
  • Difficulty concentrating or focusing owing to sensory stimuli.

Factors that can exacerbate SPD in teenagers include hormonal changes, a rapidly developing brain, and the increased complexity of social relationships.

Additionally, the expectations of adolescents may increase the impact of sensory processing challenges. Teens are generally expected to be more independent and adaptive to different situations.

It might be necessary to seek professional help if you suspect that you or a loved one may have SPD.

Early intervention and support can make a significant difference in managing the condition and improving overall quality of life.

teen hugging mother

Can You Have Sensory Processing Disorder Without Autism?

Yes, you can have sensory processing disorder without autism. However, there is a strong overlap between the two.

SPD can also affect people with other conditions such as ADHD. Alternatively, some people might have SPD without any other underlying condition.

Sensory Issues During Teenage Years

Hormonal Changes and Sensory Challenges

During the teenage years, teenagers’ bodies undergo significant hormonal changes which may worsen or cause new sensory challenges.

These hormonal fluctuations can lead to heightened sensitivities to various stimuli such as touch, sound, and light.

To cope with these sensory challenges, you could support your teen to:

  • Wear comfortable clothing made of soft materials.
  • Use noise-cancelling headphones in noisy environments.
  • Adjust the lighting in their room to a comfortable level.

Sensory Processing in Teens: Social Interactions and High School

Building relationships and maintaining social connections can be challenging for teenagers with sensory issues.

High school environments are filled with unpredictable situations and people, which may cause discomfort for those with sensory processing difficulties.

To handle social interactions in high school, you can help your child by encouraging them to:

  • Seek out quiet spaces in school for relaxation and focus.
  • Practice deep breathing and grounding techniques to calm their nerves.
  • Communicate their sensory needs with friends and teachers.
teen boy studying at his desk

Sensory Processing Difficulties and Autism

When it comes to understanding sensory processing difficulties, you should be aware that these challenges often coexist with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Sensory processing difficulties affect adolescents with ASD, significantly impacting their daily functioning.

It has been reported that 70-96% of autistic people experience some difficulties with sensory processing.

Autistic teens may show certain behaviours when experiencing sensory issues. These might include:

  • Increased movement, such as jumping, spinning, or crashing into things.
  • Increased stimming, like hand flapping, making repetitive noises, or rocking back and forth.
  • Talking faster and louder, or not talking at all.
  • Covering ears or eyes.

It is important to remain informed and empathetic towards your teenager’s unique experiences and needs.

Strategies for Managing Sensory Issues in Teenagers

Sensory Diet

A sensory diet is a personalised activity plan that helps manage your sensory needs throughout the day.

This plan consists of sensory activities that help regulate and maintain an optimal level of arousal, attentiveness, and focus.

You can create your own sensory diet by identifying sensory activities your teen already performs for regulation, calming and focus, such as drinking coffee, crochet, or going for an evening run.

Consider incorporating these activities into a daily routine to reduce anxiety and promote mental health.

Deep Pressure and Sensory Stimulation

Deep pressure activities can help to calm and soothe your nervous system. They typically involve firm touch, pressure, or vibration, and may include:

  • Weighted blankets or vests
  • Compression clothing
  • Massage or firm hugs
  • Weighted lap pads

Sensory stimulation activities, on the other hand, aim to engage your senses in a gentle manner.

They might include fidget items or sensory toys (e.g., squeeze balls, rubber band).

Physical Activity

Engaging in physical activity can be a powerful tool in managing sensory issues.

Regular exercise, such as running, swimming, or yoga, can help regulate and balance your nervous system.

Additionally, physical activities that require coordination and body awareness, such as dance or martial arts, can also be beneficial for enhancing proprioceptive input and improving sensory processing.

teen girl jogging

Case Study

Let’s take a look at a hypothetical case study of a teenager with sensory issues.

Lucy, 16 years old, has difficulty processing auditory input, making it hard for her to stay focused in a noisy environment.

To help Lucy manage her auditory sensitivity, she tries the following strategies:

  • Wearing noise-cancelling headphones when in noisy environments.
  • Listening to calming classical music while studying.
  • Incorporating white noise machines at home.
  • Swinging on her garden swing for a few minutes each day.
  • Using a weighted blanket on her lap while relaxing in the evenings.
  • Having quiet rest periods built into her day.

By creating a sensory diet that combines deep pressure, sensory stimulation activities, and physical activities, Lucy is better equipped to cope with her sensory issues and improve her overall well-being.

Therapies and Support for Sensory Issues

Occupational Therapy

Occupational therapy (OT) plays a significant role in addressing sensory issues in teenagers.

An occupational therapist can help your teen develop strategies to cope with sensory challenges and improve their overall functioning in daily life.

OT may involve activities that target specific sensory systems and teach your teen to regulate their responses to sensory stimuli.

These activities may include deep pressure activities or simply adjusting the environment to better suit their needs.

Sensory Integration Therapy

Another therapeutic approach for sensory issues is sensory integration therapy, which is often facilitated by an OT.

This therapy focuses on too much or too little stimulation through your teen’s senses.

By introducing activities and exercises tailored to your teen’s sensory needs, the therapist aims to help them feel more comfortable and cope better in various situations.

Examples of sensory integration therapy activities might include:

  • Swinging on a swing to provide vestibular input
  • Playing with tactile materials like putty or sand to address touch hypersensitivities
  • Listening to calming music with comfortable headphones for auditory regulation

Each activity is customised to target your teenager’s specific sensory needs and should always be carried out under the supervision and guidance of a therapist.

Family Involvement in Teen Sensory Processing Difficulties

As a parent, you have a crucial role in supporting your teenager during their therapy sessions and in daily life.

Some practical ways family members can support sensory issues in teenagers might include:

  • Creating a calming environment at home by reducing noise and clutter.
  • Encouraging your teen to participate in stress-reduction activities like yoga or meditation.
  • Prompting your teen to take part in regulatory activities as part of their sensory diet.
  • Helping your teen find sensory items, such as suitable headphones, to provide comfort during overwhelming situations.

Adapting Daily Life for Sensory Processing Needs

Daily Routine and Activities

Establishing a consistent daily routine can help your teen manage their sensory processing needs.

Make sure they allot enough time for important tasks such as meals, relaxation, exercise, and sleep.

Try out a variety of activities or hobbies that cater to their sensory differences, such as:

  • Quiet, mindful activities, like colouring or reading.
  • Low-intensity exercises, such as walking or swimming.
  • Hands-on hobbies, such as clay modelling or knitting.

Consider using a chart to track their progress with sensory strategies and celebrate their achievements.

Environment and Sensory Stimulation in Teenagers

Creating a supportive environment can help your teen manage their sensory processing needs.

Here are a few adjustments you could make in your living spaces:

  1. Lighting: Swap fluorescent lights for softer, warmer lighting options. LED or incandescent bulbs might be easier on your eyes.
  2. Acoustics: To reduce auditory stress, place soft furnishings such as rugs, cushions, or curtains to help dampen noise. You can also incorporate white noise machines or calming background music in your environment.
  3. Textures: Adjust clothing, bedding, and furniture to suit your teen’s tactile sensitivities or sensory-seeking needs. Soft or smooth fabrics may help you them more relaxed and comfortable. You can buy sensory-friendly clothing from a variety of stores.
  4. Scents: Be mindful of the scents around you as a family, like fragrances, cleaning supplies, or laundry products. Opt for fragrance-free or subtly scented products to reduce olfactory sensitivities, or choose the scents your teen favours.

Remember that each teenager’s sensory preferences are unique, so experiment with the suggestions I have mentioned above to find the ones that suit you best.

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Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years.

In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children. Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need.

Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.

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