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Does My Child Have Sensory Processing Disorder?

Have you noticed your child seems extra clumsy? Do they freak out about their socks and certain clothes? Do they react negatively to noise, bright lights or sensory overload?

It’s not unusual for your child to be sensitive from time to time. But if these behaviors are impacting your child’s everyday life at home, school and in the world, your child may be exhibiting signs of sensory processing disorder (SPD), formerly called sensory integration dysfunction.

Sensory processing is something that many of us take for granted. We see, hear, touch, taste and smell without a second thought. However, in a child with sensory processing disorder, one or more of these senses aren’t working correctly.

“Sensory processing disorder is like a traffic jam in your brain,” said Catherine Riley, MD, a developmental-behavioral pediatric specialist at Banner Health’s Diamond Children’s Multispecialty Services Clinic in Tucson, AZ. “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.”

Although SPD can appear as a behavioral issue, it’s actually a neurological disorder.

What causes sensory processing disorder?

There is research looking into this, but so far, there’s no known cause of SPD.

“Sometimes it can co-occur with autism spectrum disorder or other developmental disabilities such as ADHD or OCD, but it’s important to note that is not always the case,” Dr. Riley said. “SPD can occur on its own."

Common signs and symptoms of sensory processing disorder

The first step in recognizing SPD is to notice the symptoms and identify if they’re causing a problem or interfering with your child living a normal life.

The type of sensory processing challenges your child has can be broken down into two categories: overreacting or underreacting. Your child may be one of these or (to make it more complicated) a combination of both. Signs and symptoms of SPD can vary from child to child, but here are a few to look out for:

  • Refuses to wear certain clothing or fabrics because they feel itchy, painful or just don’t feel right
  • Has delayed motor skills, is clumsy or constantly bumps into walls or objects
  • Reacts strongly to loud noises and bright lights
  • Engages in sensory seeking activities that produce deep pressure, like extra tight hugs, or are risky, like jumping from tall heights
  • Is constantly in motion
  • Only eats foods that are familiar to them (does not like unfamiliar smells/tastes)
  • Dislikes getting hands dirty
  • Puts everything in their mouth

Ways to help a child with sensory processing disorder

You may notice that your child’s behavior is not typical, but you may not know why. It’s important to observe and take note to share with professionals who can identify your child’s challenges. “Often physicians who are specially trained to care for children with developmental and behavioral concerns can help identify sensory challenges. Occupational therapists who are experienced in sensory issues are qualified to identify and create a treatment plan,” Dr. Riley said.

Once you have a proper diagnosis and awareness of which senses are over- or under- reacting, here are some ways you can help your child:

1. Start occupational therapy

Research has shown that starting therapy early on with an occupational therapist can be tremendously helpful for children with SPD as it can help children learn how to effectively manage sensory input and their sensory issues.

Many therapists use sensory integration therapy, which focuses on activities that challenge your child and will help them learn ways to respond to their senses appropriately. As the sessions progress, your child will become more accustomed or comfortable with certain sensations and movements. Sensory integration therapy is also helpful for parents, as it can give you the necessary skills and tools to help your child.

Treatment may also include a sensory diet, which actually has nothing to do with food. A sensory diet is a list of activities that are designed to help your child stay focused and organized during the day.

2. Create a sensory-smart environment at home

Creating a physical environment with a focus on the senses can make a world of difference in your child’s comfort. Talk to your child’s therapist for ideas to create a sensory stimulating space that you can integrate at home to meet your child’s sensory needs. This may include therapy balls, swings, ball pits, weighted blankets, noise reduction headphones and sensory fidgets.

3. Work with your child’s school

Many children with sensory issues may do just fine with learning and socializing at school with a bit of extra support, a sensory diet and some special accommodations. You may be able to work this out informally with your child’s school.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act doesn’t specifically reference SPD as a listed disability, but your child may still meet the criteria for an Individualized Education Program (IEP). However, if your child doesn’t qualify, they may qualify for protections under a 504 plan. Check out “How to Get the Most From Your Child’s IEP” to learn more.

Living with sensory processing disorder

Once your child receives treatment for their sensory issues, their understanding and ability to cope will grow. “Sensory processing disorder is a real issue that can be very disruptive to a child’s and a family’s life,” Dr. Riley said. “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.”

Get help today

Dealing with sensory issues at home can be difficult, but you aren’t alone. Discuss the sensory issues with your child’s doctor and/or a licensed mental health or occupational therapist experienced in sensory processing issues. To find a specialist near you, visit bannerhealth.com.

Related reading:

Parenting Children's Health Behavioral Health