Top 10 Signs Your Child Has a Sensory Processing Disorder

Your child throws a fit every time he gets his hands dirty.  Or, your child is always getting in trouble for playing too rough at school.  Maybe your child won’t eat anything except toast, no matter how hungry he or she is or how many different foods you‘ve put in front of him or her. Maybe, you can’t take your child to a park, gym or even the grocery store because the noise is too much for him or her.

As a parent, you begin to wonder what the underlying problem might be?  Could it be autism?  You’ve heard or maybe even seen some autistic children behave that way.  On the other hand, could it just be bad behavior?  As parents we may be afraid to ask a professional for advice.  Don’t ever be afraid to ask!  It could be a sensory processing disorder which means, there is help.

Children who struggle to keep their sensory systems modulated, often act-out in negative ways.  It is easy to overlook a sensory processing disorder because children typically lack the ability to appropriately communicate how the bothersome stimulus affects them or, how they crave a sensory experience.  Because verbalizing their repulsion or attraction to a sensation proves to be a challenge, a child’s behavior is often times their primary way of communicating their sensory needs.  The following list provides a quick glimpse at some of the most common “red-flag“ behaviors that may suggest that your child has a sensory processing disorder.

1. Tantrums consistently last more than 25 minutes:  Tantrums are a typical part of development, but they rarely last longer than five minutes.  If your child consistently melts-down for longer than 25 minutes, a sensory processing disorder may be at the root of the problem.

2. Your child acts out during traditionally fun, child friendly events:  Birthday parties, Chuck E. Cheese, the school carnival; we typically think of children enjoying these types of outings, but children with sensory processing disorders can find these events over-stimulating and painful to navigate.  If your child frequently acts-out during these types of activities, it may be a sign that your child is feeling overwhelmed by his or her environment.

3. Your child ignores you when you are talking to him or her in a crowd: If your child consistently fails to respond to his or her name being called, or to instructions being given while engaged in play, it may be a sign that he or she is over-stimulated and therefore, unable to filter out important information from ancillary noise.

4. Your child is too rough, often pushing friends over:  When children with poor proprioceptive feedback are playing, it is difficult for them to notice how much force they are using with their bodies.  These children are often reprimanded for hitting and pushing, but a watchful eye will recognize that the behaviors are not born of anger or frustration, but rather out of a desire to interact and play.  If your child is often pushing others, but not out of anger, there is a good chance that your child may have a hypo-responsive proprioceptive system.

5. Your child is always yelling:  Children who consistently use an outside voice indoors will often find themselves in trouble.  Some children have a hypo-responsive auditory system and fail to have the feedback required to properly modulate their voice levels.

6. Your child refuses to get dressed in the morning:   Some children with sensory processing disorders have a hyper-active tactile system making tags, clothing textures, and the fit of different articles of clothing very uncomfortable.  If your child fights you to get dressed daily, chances are good that they may have some tactile hyper-sensitivity that makes clothing unpleasant to them.

7. Your child has a meltdown during dinner every night:  Picky eating is a common childhood trait; however, if your child gags, cries, and fights you during dinner, after being presented with certain foods, it’s possible that your child has an oral-hypersensitivity.  Imagine how you would react if you were forced to eat liver and onions night after night.

8. Your child is unable to fall asleep in a timely manner, or, to stay asleep throughout the night:  Children with a poor sense of proprioceptive input often have a difficult time falling and staying asleep.  It is difficult to relax and get comfortable when you do not feel grounded.  Weighted blankets are often times a good solution to help improve one’s quality and quantity of sleep.

9. Your child throws a tantrum because of dirty hands:  It is natural and healthy for kids to play in the dirt and to get messy.  If your child becomes deeply disturbed by dirty and sticky hands, or refuses to touch sand, dirt, mud, finger paints, play dough, and other similar textures, then your child may have a hyper-responsive tactile system.

10. Your child continues to mouth anything and everything:  After the age of three, children explore their environments more with their hands and less with their mouths.  If your child is three or older and continues to put non-food items in his or her mouth on a regular basis, he or she may be seeking proprioceptive input, or may have oral hypo-sensitivity.

All children make bad choices from time to time.  All children get angry and throw tantrums from time to time.  Listen to your gut instinct.  If you feel that your child’s reactions to common life experiences are “over-the-top”, then your child may be experiencing a fight-or-flight response to their environment.  If you feel that your child is lacking a healthy sense of safety awareness, then your child may be seeking intense sensations in order to help maintain a well-regulated sensory system.  If you are concerned about your child’s behavior and can relate to two or more of the above “red-flags”, then help is available.

Occupational therapists are trained in working with children and families to develop a sensory program to implement at home, giving your child the freedom to play, listen, and learn to the best of their abilities.

For more information on sensory processing disorders and what you can do at home to help, download my video, sensory processing disorders: understanding a child’s rainbow of emotions and behaviors.

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Jason Miller