Is it the Terrible Twos? Or is it Something Bigger... A Look into Sensory Processing Disorder.

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It never fails… you are out in public, trying to run errands before you have to get home and cook dinner… and then your toddler decides to have an epic meltdown in the middle of Target. How embarrassing!!! You tell yourself, this is just the terrible twos… it should pass soon… until… it doesn’t. So, how do you know if your child’s behavior is normal age-appropriate behavior or if it is something that you should be concerned about?

Let me start by asking you a question. Have you ever heard of Sensory Processing Disorder? Most people haven’t. I know I didn’t have the slightest clue what that was when we were having a very challenging time with our kids. What is even more frustrating, is that I am a Physician Assistant and I had never heard of this. And when I asked our Pediatrician, even they didn’t really know much about this!!

So, what exactly is Sensory Processing Disorder and why should you know about it?!

Simply stated, Sensory Processing Disorder is the inability of the brain to interpret and use sensory information from the environment . I am sure you can probably think of at least one kid who is oversensitive to noise or light, clumsy, picky, fidgety, “in their own world”, can’t wear certain materials or tight fitting clothes, and/or constantly hyperactive or seeking rough activities. These children likely have an issue with sensory integration of one of the senses.

Our body has seven senses: sight, smell, touch, taste, hearing, vestibular and proprioception. Most people have heard of the first five senses. But not everyone has heard of the last two. These two are extremely important for coordination, movement, learning, and knowing where our body is in space. When a child (or even adult) has sensory processing difficulties, they could have either hypersensitivity or hypo-sensitivity to these different senses. Here are a few symptoms that indicate inability of the brain to interpret information from the different senses:

  • TOUCH

    • Light touch causes pain or irritation

    • often sensitive to different textures

    • Avoids tight clothes

    • Tags on clothes bother them

    • Avoids brushing teeth or new food textures in their mouth

    • Very picky with different food textures

    • Cannot take hot or warm baths

    • Over reacts to small scrapes or injuries

    • Hates getting hands dirty

    • May not notice being touched.

    • Unaware of messy hands.

    • Does not notice how things feel and often drops items.

  • VESTIBULAR (BALANCE):

    • Avoids moving or being unexpectedly moved.

    • Insecure or anxious about being off balance or falling.

    • Gets carsick.

    • Clumsy.

    • Unaware of body in space.

    • Unable to protect self when falling or falls a lot.

    • Always spinning or doing cartwheels or hanging upside down.

  • PROPRIOCEPTION:

    • Avoids heavy objects.

    • Avoids playground activities that bring strong input into muscles and joints.

    • May be uncoordinated.

    • Becomes more alert after pushing, pulling lifting heavy objects.

    • Loose or “floppy” muscle tone.

    • Poor fine motor skills.

    • Seeking “rough” activities.

  • TASTE

    • May frequently gag when eating.

    • Objects novel foods.

    • May be able to eat very spicy food without reaction.

  • SMELL

    • Objects to many odors that others cannot smell.

    • Unable to smell new odors or unpleasant odors

    • May choose or reject food based on the way it smells.

  • SOUNDS

    • Covers ears with loud and unexpected noise

    • Loud noises set off a behavioral tantrum and the “fight or flight” response.

    • Dislikes vacuum cleaners or bathroom hand dryers

    • Ignores ordinary sounds

  • SIGHT

    • Gets overstimulated or “set off” by too much visual stimuli in an environment (i.e. too many people walking around, too many lights, too many words on paper etc)

    • Poor eye contact.

    • Inattentive to desk work.

    • Over reactive to bright light.

    • Very alert and watchful.

    • Respond slowly to approaching objects.

So, that brings us back to our first question:

How do you know if your child has Sensory Processing Disorder or just displaying normal developmental behavior?

If any of those symptoms listed above sound familiar to your own children or children you know, I would encourage you to fill out this symptom checklist form. If your child has several of the symptoms presented, I would encourage you to have an evaluation by a sensory trained Occupational Therapist for a formal diagnosis of Sensory Processing Disorder and read this post about the effect of diet and biomedical treatments on behavior.

Here is a video that shows several different symptoms of Sensory Processing Disorder in children.

Listed below are different books and resources to learn more about SPD:

  • The Out-of-Sync Child by Carol Kranowitz

  • www.SPDfoundation.net

  • www.STARcenter.us

  • www.spdsupport.org

Sarah Campbell