Does your child have an unusual reluctance to noise or light?
Are you concerned about your child displaying challenging behavior and are wondering if it is linked to a Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)?
If these are questions you are asking yourself, you have come to the right place.
This post will break down what you need to know about a Sensory Processing Disorder, symptoms to look for, next steps to take if you feel your child is showing signs of a sensory issue, helpful resources, and more.
What is Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)?
In simple terms, a Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) (also known as Sensory Integration Disorder) is when the brain has a difficult time receiving sensory messages from the main five senses which can include issues surrounding sight, taste, touch, smell, and sound as well as TWO EXTRA senses, body awareness (proprioception) and movement (vestibular).
To get a little more detailed, SPD is a neurological condition that makes it difficult for the body to receive and interpret those sensory inputs. It hinders the body’s ability to convert those sensory signals into the appropriate motor and behavioral response.
When the brain can’t orchestrate ALL the information coming in “it’s like a traffic jam in your head with conflicting signals quickly coming from all directions, so that you don’t know how to make sense of it all,” shares Nancy Peske, co-author of Raising a Sensory Smart Child.
So you may find your child on ‘sensory overload’ or becoming ‘overly stimulated’‘.
But what EXACTLY does that type of behavior look like?
Let’s explore some common signs and symptoms to be on the lookout for …
Common Sensory Processing Disorder Signs and Symptoms
Sensory issues are often noticed during a child’s earlier years usually around ages 1 to 3 years.
Common SPD behavioral symptoms you may start to see your child doing …
- Drastic mood swings and tantrums
- Becoming easily irritated
- Food aversions (or is a super picky eater)
- Having an unusual low or high pain threshold
- Movement difficulty with coordination and balance
- Showing issues with their fine motor skills
Now let’s easily breakdown each symptom and common behaviors you may notice.
Drastic Mood Swings and Tantrums
When your child has extreme mood swings and tantrums it can be VERY stressful and upsetting as a parent.
Most of the time this happens when the child’s environment changes.
For instance, your child may be perfectly content sitting at home with you where their atmosphere is calm and soothing. BUT let’s say you decide to run into the grocery store with them and suddenly, your kiddo is now in an environment where there is a plethora of activity going on such as noise and people.
Does this send your child into a frenzy or make them easily upset?
Becoming Easily Irritated
If you find your child extremely irritable they could be experiencing ‘sensory overload’.
You may notice this happen when your child is getting dressed and they feel their clothes are too tight or they don’t like the way the fabric feels against their skin.
Tactile triggers can happen causing more irritation when you child feels their clothing tag touch their skin, wearing wooly sweaters, or even putting on socks.
Typically, a kid with sensory issues is hypersensitive to the smell and texture of foods and will tend to gravitate towards foods that are more bland.
So how do you differentiate between a picky eater vs. an eater who may be experiencing sensory challenges?
“Eating fewer than 10 foods and really struggling to try new foods is beyond being picky and a red flag for a problem eater,” shares pediatric dietitian Jessica Crandall, RDN, from Denver, Colorado.
A child with SPD usually has very limited food choices and may spit out foods that are the slightest bit mushy (like bananas or cooked peas).
Have Unusual Low or High Pain Threshold
You may find your little one under sensitive to pain and have a high pain tolerance which posts a red flag.
For instance, playing rough is something your child may really enjoy doing and most likely, they will not even realize their own strength if they happen to hurt someone.
OR they could be under-reactive to certain sensations like not noticing names being called or being touched.
Movement Difficulty with Coordination and Balance
Sensory challenges can impact motor skills and this boils down to the vestibular system.
The vestibular system is your inner ear and part of the brain that controls balance, eye movement and spatial orientation. It helps keep you STABLE and standing upright.
So a child that has vestibular sensory issues, may appear uncoordinated, clumsy, or be afraid to do certain physical activities.
They will display troubles with body awareness and balance which can impact their motor skills which leads us into challenges surrounding their fine motor skills (or the smaller muscles in the fingers and hands) …
Showing Issues with their Fine Motor Skills
Everyday activities like putting on socks could be very difficult for a child with sensory challenges to do because they may be uncomfortable touching the fabric of the socks.
You may also find they have difficulties holding a crayon, buttoning a shirt, or using scissors.
If Your Child Has Sensory Issues, What Should You Do Next?
IF your child is displaying more than a few signs and symptoms just mentioned it’s best to talk to your child’s doctor about the next steps to take.
Of course, you know your child best.
Deep down if you are getting the ‘feels’ that something else is going on with their behavior, it may be time to explore that further with a highly trained professional who treats Sensory Processing Disorders such as an occupational therapist who is trained in sensory integration.
Again, your child’s doctor would be a great starting point of reference to steer you in the right direction.
#1. If you want to dive a little deeper into the symptoms your little one may be displaying, take a peek at this Symptoms Checklist by STARInstitute.
#2. Here is a guide you can reference called Sensory Processing 101, which is a VERY easy read and gives you a better understanding of sensory processing and the body’s sensory systems. This is one of the TOP rated sensory books on the market and you get three guides in one; the sensory process explained, sensory activities, and sensory resources.
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Hopefully, the information we just explored gave you a better understanding of Sensory Processing Disorder and symptoms to be aware of.
If there are questions you may have or anything you’d like to add that I did not cover in this post, please feel free to comment below.
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Thanks very nice blog!
Thanks for the kind words. 🙂
Riaz Shah says
Great article Lindsey,
My nephew has a sensory processing disorder and I was wondering what it meant and why he can withstand pain like nobody’s business. It worries me especially when he thinks he’s immune and get bruises a lot but if the brain is having trouble to process, how come these children prefer eating bland food if it doesn’t affect them much?
Lindsey Kovach says
Thanks for your insight Riaz! Great question … Typically, a child that has sensory challenges has a hypersensitive sense of smell and will gravitate towards foods that are more bland. Bland foods are usually easier on the stomach and don’t have an overly strong smell.
Thank God I have a daughter and I have not had an unpleasant experience with her health condition. I honestly didn’t even know there was a Sensory Processing Disorder. What percentage of children are diagnosed with this syndrome each year? I am glad to have read this useful article. We parents should be informed at all times about all things related to the health and illness of our children.
Lindsey Kovach says
Thanks for your thoughts and kind words Oliveir!
To answer your question, a study done by the University of California San Francisco revealed Sensory Processing Disorders can affect 5 to 16 percent of school-aged children which you can learn more about by clicking here.
This description sounds like those of my friend whose daughter will suddenly get into crying for long periods and sometimes seems out of sorts whenever she is in a place with too many people. This child was diagnosed as autistic. Is this related ? It is interesting how knowledge and understanding can make a big difference. I can also think of a little boy who fussed about food and suddenly bursts into very loud tantrums. I always thought he was just misbehaving and needed some parental control. Thanks for such an informative article.
Lindsey Kovach says
Thanks for sharing JJ! There is A LOT of discussion about Autism and Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) going hand in hand but no concrete evidence at this time saying if you have SPD then you have Autism. I appreciate your feedback. 🙂