You may have noticed that your child seems sensitive to loud noises, hates getting their face wet, gets incredibly upset about a scratchy tag in their shirt, or gags if you try to feed them foods with a “yucky” texture. Or maybe, rather than avoiding sensory input, they seem to crave it—jumping off the monkey bars, climbing all over you, chewing on non-food items, or just moving constantly. So, how much of this is just run-of-the-mill kid behavior, and when should it start being a concern?
What is sensory processing disorder?
A child with sensory processing disorder (SPD) may have trouble interpreting or handling information they take in via their five senses. Sensory issues can also impact a person’s “internal” senses like body awareness, balance, and coordination. SPD is often diagnosed in children who are on the autism spectrum or have other developmental delays, but it can also be found in kids without any other diagnoses.
As developmental-behavioral pediatric specialist Dr. Catherine Riley explains, “Sensory processing disorder is like a traffic jam in your brain. Your child’s brain is having a hard time processing information from one sense, like touch or sound, or multiple senses. With SPD, it can significantly impact their emotional and social needs, as well as learning.”
As awareness about sensory processing issues spreads, more and more businesses and institutions are making accommodations for people who live with SPD. For example, the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo has noise-canceling headphones on hand for people who may become overwhelmed by lots of sounds, while the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia has sensory guides for each exhibit to warn guests about potential triggers.
What should parents know?
While SPD can impact people of all ages, kids can be particularly sensitive to sensory issues. Here are 3 things parents should know about SPD—
1. Sensory issues can show up in lots of different ways. Although SPD can look like a behavioral issue, it’s actually a neurological disorder. Signs and symptoms of SPD can vary widely in children, but here are some examples of things to watch out for:
- Refuses to wear certain clothing or fabrics because they feel itchy, painful or uncomfortable
- Is clumsy or constantly bumps into walls or objects
- Reacts strongly to loud noises and bright lights
- Seeks activities that produce deep pressure, like extra tight hugs; or ones that are risky, like jumping from tall heights
- Is constantly in motion
- Only eats foods that are familiar to them
- Dislikes getting hands dirty
- Puts everything in their mouth
2. There’s no medication for SPD, but there are other ways to manage it. SPD can be managed with the help of an occupational therapist, and there are some simple changes you can make in your child’s environment to help ease their sensory distress. For example:
- For a child who needs to move a bit, you can give them an inflatable seat cushion or a cushy pillow so they can both squirm and stay seated during moments like meal time.
- If possible, eliminate buzzing and flickering fluorescent lighting in the home.
- Cover unnecessary lights on electronics with sticky notes or stickers.
- Provide sensory breaks such as walking in circles, doing jumping jacks, or sucking on a sour candy to prevent sensory overload.
- Provide fidget toys or small healthy snacks they can work on during moments they need to sit still.
- For large gatherings or seated events where there’s higher risk than usual for sensory overload, have your child sit near an exit or identify quiet areas upon arrival so that they can take breaks away from the noise or visual chaos.
- Have a clear visual schedule posted with plenty of preparation for transitions during their daily routine.
3. Kids with SPD can thrive with the help of a good sensory diet. Therapy for SPD will often involve sensory integration therapy, which involves methodically and gently challenging a child’s senses and teaching them to respond effectively in those moments. A sensory diet is a list of activities and accommodations that helps a child meet their sensory needs throughout the day. The following are some examples of sensory diet activities and accommodations:
- Carrying a backpack or playing hopscotch to help with body awareness.
- Jumping jacks or swinging on a swing to help with movement awareness.
- High fives or squeezing a stress ball to help with tactile needs.
- Listening to music or wearing noise-canceling headphones to help with auditory needs.
- Cleaning up clutter or using neutral paint colors to help with visual needs.
- Eliminating scented products or exploring calming aromatherapy scents to help with olfactory needs.
- Offering ice cubes or crunchy foods to help with oral sensory needs.
As Dr. Riley puts it, “There is no magic cure, but with the right kind of support, you can have a lighted path forward. The goal is to help children with SPD live fulfilled and happy lives.” A combination of occupational therapy, an effective sensory diet, and a strong support network can help kids with sensory processing challenges thrive.
If you suspect your child might have an issue with sensory processing, you can use a sensory checklist to assess how your child responds to different input, like walking barefoot to smelling objects that aren’t food. Also be sure to talk to your child’s pediatrician; if needed, they can refer you to an occupational therapist who can assess your child for SPD. Finally, acknowledge that these behaviors can be very frustrating for parents—and recognize that the behaviors are not your child’s fault. Kids (and adults) with SPD are far too often thought to be “picky,” “over sensitive,” “impulsive,” or “clumsy,” when in fact they’re just dealing with their environment the best they can. As in most parenting situations, a little empathy goes a long way.