We as humans are constantly absorbing different sensations in our daily lives, whether that be smelling our cup of coffee in the morning, hearing the sound of birds chirping, or feeling the warm sunshine on our faces. Many of us can tolerate these constant sensory experiences, but to some they can feel like too much or not enough.
As adults, we have probably grown accustomed to knowing what we need more of and what we don’t enjoy when it comes to sensory input and processing. When it comes to our children, however, the concept of understanding what their bodies feel and need in order to be safe can be an extremely overwhelming process and sometimes lead to sensory processing issues.
This blog will shed light on Sensory Processing Disorders, which is an increasingly common diagnosis, and help parents understand how it presents, how it impacts their child, ways to provide support, and when to seek professional help for sensory challenges.
What is Sensory Processing Disorder?
Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is categorized as a set of behaviors related to trouble processing information from the senses. It is estimated that “nearly one out of 20 school-aged children have SPD, but the actual number may be much higher because it’s tough to diagnose” (Bayliff, 2021).
As Lisa Dion, LPC, RPT-S, and the creator of Synergetic Play Therapy describes sensory integration, “imagine every sensory channel has a window of tolerance or sweet spot of how it takes in or processes information.” SPD is often associated with folks with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) but the two are not mutually exclusive and one can have SPD without having ASD.
Humans have eight sensory systems: visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory, gustatory, vestibular (sense of balance), proprioception (body awareness/position), and interoception (internal body sensations) (Miller, n.d.). Children with SPD can fall into one of two categories – being over responsive or under responsive to these systems.
A child who is overly responsive or “sensory avoiding” tends to display behaviors that appear defiant such as yelling or throwing tantrums. Under-responsive children, on the other hand, may appear as “thrill seekers or sensory seeking” because they cannot get the sensations they need.
For example, an overly responsive child could feel a poke in the arm as equal to being stabbed by a needle while an under responsive child would not recognize any sensation or the feeling would feel more like being touched by a feather.
Potential Signs of Sensory Seeking
- Excessive head banging, especially in connection to their needs such as hunger or being too tired
- Eating or drinking too fast
- Chewing on non-food items
- Scratching skin surfaces
- Rubbing eyes, lips, or ears
- Picking at skin excessively
- Approaching all new stimuli
- Getting in the face of others or appearing to struggle with personal space/boundaries
- Rocking extremities or whole body back and forth (similar to the movement of a rocking horse)
- Frequently being under stimulated or bored
Potential Signs of Sensory Avoiding
- Becoming “wiggly” when being held, struggles with dressing (e.g. can’t tolerate tags on clothing or seams on socks)
- Pushing away from touch
- Extreme response such as crying, screaming, screeching when touched or approached for a hug. May fight cuddling and physical games like tag or tickling
- Becoming stiff and sometimes rigid
- Running away from things they do not like
- Irritability if touched in the wrong spot
- Argumentative at dinner or when having to do homework
- Losing homework and objects easily. (This is due to under-stimulation, where they forget what has happened recently.)
How is SPD Diagnosed?
There are multiple factors that are thought to contribute to SPD, including premature birth and genetic links. It is important to be aware that we are all inherently unique persons with different needs, and what is required or needed for one person is not the same for another. If your child struggles with SPD, that does not mean that there is something wrong with them! It could be helpful to look at their sensory processing as a unique and special way that they absorb their experiences in the world.
In order to receive the diagnosis of SPD, your child must complete a sensory integration evaluation by an Occupational Therapist (OT). OTs and mental health therapists work collaboratively when addressing children’s needs while coping with SPD. Mental health therapists aim to address the trauma resulting from our children not feeling safe in their bodies while occupational therapy addresses the physical symptoms and sensations of SPD by helping kids learn strategies for managing sensory processing difficulties experienced in their daily lives.
How Can I Best Support My Child?
As a parent, get curious about your own sensory needs. What makes you feel overwhelmed and what sorts of sensations do you seek out? Keep in mind that “If we are not in tune with our body it spills over into difficulties in being in relation to others” (Dion, n.d.)
- Educate yourself on SPD and how your child’s body responds to their sensory processing challenges.
- Relearn your expectations for parenting. Learn to value your child’s strengths amid their sensory issues. Yes, this requires patience and being aware of your own sensory needs!
- Utilize the Sensory checklist to help determine next steps for your child (Biel & Penske, 2018)
- Seek professional help if needed.
Additional Resources for Parents:
- Out of sync child: Recognizing and Coping with Sensory Processing Differences by Carol Stock Kranowitz
- Raising a Sensory Smart Child: The definitive handbook for Helping Your Child with Sensory Processing Issues by Lindsey Biel and Nancy Peske
- The Explosive Child by Dr Ross Greene
This blog was written by Sentier therapist, Bridgett Brye, MSW, LICSW.
Bayliff, J. (2021, September 20). The warning signs of sensory processing disorder. https://crawlwalkjumprun.com/sensory-processing-disorder-children/
Biel, L. & Penske, N. (2018) Sensory Checklist.
Dion, L. (n.d). Sensory processing disorder in the playroom. https://learn.synergeticplaytherapy.com/courses/sensory-processing-disorder-in-the-playroom-product/lessons/sensory-processing-disorder-in-the-playroom-product/
Miller, L. J. (n.d.). Understanding sensory processing disorder. Star Institute. Retrieved June 13, 2023, from https://sensoryhealth.org/basic/understanding-sensory-processing-disorder