What does sensory processing disorder look like?

August 01, 2019 | by Kimberly Cossmann, MOT, OTR/L
Categories: Healthy Driven Moms

Have you noticed your child reacts strongly to noise, bright lights or wearing certain clothes? Does your child seem to be extra clumsy, or maybe he/she won’t stop moving? Do these behaviors impact your child’s abilities to participate in home, school or the community?

These behaviors may signal sensory processing disorder (SPD). Sensory processing refers to the way the nervous system receives messages from the senses and turns them into appropriate motor and behavioral responses. For children with SPD, this sensory information gets mixed up in their brain.

First identified by occupational therapist Dr. A. Jean Ayers in the 1970s, sensory processing differences are like a “traffic jam” in your head that prevent certain parts of the brain from processing and acting upon information received through the senses.

The symptoms of SPD vary greatly. It can affect only one sense, like touch or sound, or multiple senses. These differences depend on how one’s nervous system interprets the sensory input it receives. Everyone interprets the world differently. With sensory processing disorder, these differences significantly impact a child’s ability to function.

For children with SPD, two main types of sensory processing challenges are:

  • Sensory seekers: Some children experience hyposensitivity (under-sensitivity), which means they crave input. They love to jump, bump and crash, and bear hugs. They can be in constant motion and seek out fast or intense movement, with little regard to safety. They may constantly hang on others, touch objects, or lean on furniture.
  • Sensory avoiders: Other children experience hypersensitivity (over-sensitivity), which means they may feel bombarded by information or have trouble understanding where their body is in relation to other objects. Children may become upset by transitions or by unexpected change. They may bump into things and appear clumsy. They may find bright lights, loud noises, or tags on clothing irritating. Children who are sensory avoiders may become upset by different fabrics or textures of food, and be resistant to grooming of hands and nails. These children can become upset when messy, which may impact their participation in play, eating or grooming.

To make things even more complicated, some kids can be both sensory seekers and sensory avoiders.

Sensory differences may be found in kids who are gifted, those with ADHD, autism, OCD, or kids with no other diagnosis at all. Sometimes the behavior is misinterpreted for being impulsive, hyperactive, overly picky, anxious or irritable.

How can you tell if your child has SPD? First, talk with your child’s doctor about what’s going on. Your doctor may recommend a pediatric occupational therapist for an evaluation.

Occupational therapists can specialize in sensory processing and how it effects your child’s daily functioning. They will work with your child and family on improving their responses to sensory inputs and give you strategies that can be implemented during your child’s daily routine to target these sensory differences.

Pay attention to symptoms to report to your child’s doctor. The first sign you may notice in your child is dramatic mood swings or tantrums. For instance, your 6-year-old may be fine in a quiet setting, but moving to an environment that is bright and loud may set them off. The tantrums can be intense and prolonged. Children may be unable to control actions and may become aggressive toward others, themselves or property.

Children with sensory processing differences present in a variety of ways throughout a lifespan. For more information regarding occupational therapy’s role in sensory processing disorder, see this Fact Sheet from the American Occupational Therapy Association.

Sometimes sensory differences are significant enough to impact everyday life. If you notice that your child’s sensory issues are interfering with their daily routine, talk to a doctor. It’s important to get help, as untreated SPD can lead to behavioral problems, anxiety, depression, school problems and other issues. For parents, it can be a relief to put a name to this confusing behavior and learn how to help support your child.

The pediatric occupational therapy team at Edward-Elmhurst Health has expertise in sensory processing disorder. Learn more.

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