Sensory Processing Disorder: Telltale Signs That Your Child May Need Help

Child frowning and covering her ears

As parents of toddlers and young children, we may observe odd behaviors or aversions to stimuli such as sound, textures, and tastes from time to time, and they most likely aren’t a reason for alarm. But if these behaviors or sensitivities persist or escalate, or are causing problems at home or school, then it's best to consult with your pediatrician. 

What we perceive as a behavioral or disciplinary issue may actually be signs of a neurological disorder such as Sensory Processing Disorder. It is important to note that while occasional tantrums are a regular occurrence in toddlers as they discover their own will – children who have strong reactions to sensory experiences may exhibit what appear to be extreme or repeated tantrums. In such cases taking disciplinary action may not only be detrimental to a child’s well-being but may exacerbate the behaviors. This is because when a child’s brain is not able to process or organize the flow of sensory impulses, it is not able to direct behaviors either. Knowing the signs of Sensory Processing Disorder will help you determine if your child needs further evaluation and help.

What is Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)?

Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a neurological condition that affects how the brain processes sensory information (stimuli). Sensory information encompasses everything we can see, hear, smell, taste, or touch. Sensory means the inefficiency of the brain causes an integrative dysfunction to our sensory systems. This disorder may impact how our senses process information or be isolated to one sense.  In most cases, SPD causes the child to be overly-sensitive to environmental stimuli. However, this disorder can have the opposite effect, where a child will appear to lack sensitivity but rather they are exhibiting delayed responses in the ability to process a myriad of external stimulation. Conversely, children with SPD are not always just one or the other, but frequently demonstrate a mixed profile. They present a hypersensitivity (over-responsiveness) or hyposensitivity (under-responsiveness) to a wide range of stimuli while most children have a combination of both. 

What Causes SPD?

Doctors and researchers don’t know the exact causes of SPD. Research is being done on the possibility of a genetic link, which means SPD could be hereditary. Some experts believe there is a link between Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and SPD. Therefore, adults who have autism may have children who are born with SPD. But it is important to note that a child with SPD doesn’t necessarily also have ASD.

Signs of Sensory Processing Disorder

Signs and symptoms can vary from child to child. As mentioned earlier, there can be over-sensitivity, under-sensitivity, or a combination of both. We will break it down into two categories so you know what to look out for, keeping in mind that these are just some examples of signs and symptoms.

Signs of Hypersensitivity (sensory avoidance)

Signs of over sensitivity in children include: 

  • Clothing feels too scratchy or itchy
  • Over-sensitivity to normal light and strong reaction to bright light
  • Oversensity to typical sound and strong reaction to loud sounds
  • Even soft or typical touching feels unpleasant or too hard
  • Aversion to certain foods and textures 
  • Poor balance or clumsiness
  • Fear of heights or swings
  • Reaction to sudden movements 

Signs of Under Sensitivity (sensory seeking)

child swinging very high on a swing

Some signs of under sensitivity in children can include: 

  • Extreme thrill and stimulation seeking (heights, spinning, repetitive movements, and visual stimuli such as video games)
  • Spinning for prolonged periods without getting dizzy
  • Chewing on things or oral-seeking behaviors (hands, objects, hair, clothing)
  • Difficulty sitting still
  • Problems going to sleep and staying asleep
  • Lack of recognition of and respect for others' personal spaces
  • Lack of self-awareness: knowing when face or hands are dirty, or nose is running.

If you observe any of these signs in your child, discussing your concerns with your pediatrician sooner rather than later is essential. It is also crucial to openly discuss all aspects of your child’s behavior with your doctor - even if they seem ordinary or irrelevant to you. Your pediatrician may refer your child to a specialist in the field, such as an Occupational Therapist (OT), for further evaluation. A professional can assess your child for SPD through formal and informal measures and by observing/interacting with your child in their natural environment. Carefully noting your child’s reactions when exposed to various sensory experiences and social interactions will help the OT make an accurate diagnosis. 

If it is determined that your child does have SPD, your OT will come up with a treatment plan and will recommend resources and support for you and your child. If you haven’t already shared your concerns with family and friends, opening up about the topic may help you realize how common Sensory Processing Disorder and other neurodiverse conditions in children are. By sharing your experience you will remove the ‘dread factor’ and any fear of stigma around SPD, and learn how other families have successfully navigated it. 

Nessle's Editorial Team

Nessle's Editorial Team

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