Parenting needs science

When is it sensory processing disorder in kids?

And when are sensory issues a symptom of something else, such as autism? This is the question parents ask themselves a lot when seeing the signs of sensory processing disorder in kids.

What is sensory processing disorder?

Sensory processing disorder (SPD) affects how your brain processes sensory information such as things you see, hear, smell, taste, or touch. SPD can affect all of your senses, or just one. Maybe your child is bothered by the feel of their clothing, but is not bothered by strong smells, for instance. Either way, SPD usually means you’re overly sensitive to stimuli that other people are not.

Is SPD an issue separate from anxiety, ADHD, or autism?

Some professionals believe SPD is not a disorder in its own right…that instead, it’s a symptom of anxiety, ADHD, or autism spectrum disorder in kids. Others see it as its own disorder. But if your child is dealing with sensory issues, does it really matter how SPD is categorized? We think not! Instead, our focus is on how to help.

Symptoms of SPD vary, but if you’ve noticed the following in your child, you’ll want to read on.

Children may be oversensitive if:

  • clothing feels too scratchy or itchy
  • lights seem too bright
  • sounds seem too loud
  • soft touches feel too hard
  • food textures make them gag
  • sudden movements, touches, loud noises, or bright lights bother them
  • they have behavior problems

Kids can also be UNDERsensitive, which means they seek extra stimuli in their lives. This could be the case if your kid can’t sit still, needs to chew, bite, or rip at things (gnawing on pens, etc), doesn’t notice things like their nose running or a cut on their knee, seeks thrills more than most kids. Of course, these can be symptoms of ADHD, too. So you see where the line can be fuzzy between SPD and other disorders.

So, what can you do to help kids with SPD symptoms?

It can help greatly to partner with a mental health or behavioral health professional and begin sensory integration therapy (SI). With SI, kids can be introduced to stimuli without feeling overwhelmed. It uses games and fun activities to teach coping skills for dealing with too much or too little stimuli.

If you’re working with your child on your own (or with a professional), you can also introduce a sensory diet. A sensory diet is a list of sensory activities your child can do at school and at home. For instance, you might ‘prescribe’ a 10-minute walk per day, access to a bouncy chair, a fidget spinner, or noise-canceling headphones, or a 15-minute ‘quiet time’ per day.

If your child has sensory issues, they may already be in occupational therapy, which can help come alongside to alleviate symptoms. In occupational therapy, kids learn fine motor skills (like using scissors), gross motor skills (like throwing a ball), and everyday skills (like eating with a fork). All these skills allow kids to practice dealing with stimuli in a controlled way.

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When is it sensory processing disorder in kids, and when is it a symptom of something else?

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