9 Signs of Sensory Processing Disorder in Kids
J Julia DeNey

9 Signs of Sensory Processing Disorder in Kids

May 2, 2024

Sensory processing is an essential part of child development. It enables children to interpret the world through touch, taste, smell, sight, and hearing. However, for some children, sensory signals don’t get organized into appropriate responses, leading to sensory processing disorder (SPD). 

It’s estimated that at least one in twenty people throughout the general population are affected by sensory processing disorder (SPD). In addition, children with ADHD, Autism, and fragile X syndrome are more likely to have SPD than the general population. 

Understanding the signs of SPD is essential so parents and caregivers can provide support to help their children adapt to sensory input around them and prevent sensory overload and meltdowns. 

Understanding Sensory Processing Disorder 

Sensory processing is essentially how the brain manages and responds to sensory input. For children with sensory processing disorder, the brain can become overwhelmed by certain stimuli, making the child’s response to input unpredictable. Think about the last time you became overwhelmed, perhaps because you were hot, hungry, it was loud, and you hadn’t slept. This is how a child may feel in an everyday environment.

1. Over-sensitivity to Stimuli

A child with an over-sensitivity to stimuli, also known as sensory hypersensitivity, might show a range of behaviors in response to sensory inputs that are typically tolerable to others. There are 4 different sensitivities to look for: 

  • Auditory: A child with an auditory sensitivity might cover their ears or scream in response to everyday noises like a vacuum cleaner, toilet flushing, or barking dogs. They may also simply plug their ears or resist going places like playgrounds or areas with a lot of people where the noise level is high because it makes them uncomfortable. 
  • Visual: A child with visual sensitivity might demonstrate discomfort with bright lights by squinting, complaining of headaches, or becoming irritable when exposed to bright lights. They may also be overwhelmed by cluttered spaces or busy patterns on clothing or walls. 
  • Tactile: A child with tactile sensitivity may be resistant to certain textures, whether they are clothing, blankets, or furniture. They may refuse to wear clothing with tags or certain fabrics or avoid touching unpleasant things. 
  • Olfactory & Gustatory: A child with an olfactory and gustatory sensitivity may react negatively to typical smells or flavors that others like, leading to aversions of certain foods, toiletries, or environments because of their scent. This aversion may also lead to a restricted diet that avoids anything spicy, bitter or with a complex texture.

2. Under-sensitivity to Stimuli

Children with an under-sensitivity or hypo-sensitivity may not react as expected to sensory issues that typically elicit a response in others. Much like with hypersensitivity, there are 4 areas where a child might demonstrate under-sensitivity.  

  • Auditory: A child with an auditory under-sensitivity might not respond when their name is called or seem unaware of sounds that attract other children’s attention. They might also turn up the TV's volume very high and not be bothered by the noise. 
  • Visual: A child with visual under-sensitivity may not notice when something changes in their environment, like new decorations or people entering their space. They might also stare at bright lights and ceiling fans or enjoy TV very close to their face. 
  • Tactile: A child with tactile under-sensitivity may not react to situations that would normally make someone uncomfortable or cause pain. This could be demonstrated by not noticing minor cuts, bruises, or burns. They may also be indifferent to changes in temperature. 
  • Olfactory & Gustatory: A child with an olfactory and gustatory under-sensitivity may have an indifference to strong smells or flavors like garbage or spicy foods. They might also favor extremely spicy, sour, or sweet foods. 

3. Difficulty with Motor Skills

SPD can significantly impact a child’s gross (large muscle movement) and fine (small muscle movements), as well as make daily activities difficult. Signs to look for include: 

  • Gross Motor Challenges: include appearing clumsy or having difficulty running, jumping, or catching a ball. 
  • Fine Motor Skill Challenges: include difficulty writing, drawing, or using scissors or utensils. 
  • Daily Activities: include difficulty performing activities like brushing teeth, combing hair, or getting dressed. 

4. Unusually High or Low Activity Levels

A child with high activity levels may be constantly in motion. Sitting during dinner or class is difficult, but they might also do things like spinning in circles repeatedly. On the flip side, children with low activity levels would show unusually low energy and need to be coaxed into even gently playing. 

Any child might do this on a given day. The key is to look for a continuous pattern of restlessness or a frequent need for breaks during activities. 

5. Emotional & Social Challenges

Most children have outbursts at some point due to emotional and social challenges, but those with sensory processing disorders might have outbursts more frequently over minor changes in their environment or routine. 

They might also struggle to engage with their peers, especially in noisy or busy settings and display this by lack of eye contact or outwardly refusing to engage or be near other children. 

6. Problems in School Performance

Children with SPD typically get easily distracted by background noises or the classroom’s visual environment, which can affect their focus and learning. A subtle sign might be them being the last to finish tasks, bringing home unfinished work, or regularly needing instructions repeated. 

7. Sensory Seeking Behaviors

We mentioned under-sensitivity to stimuli above but wanted to dive a little bit more specifically into sensory-seeking behavior. A sensory-seeking child might enjoy excessive spinning, jumping, or engaging in contact that seems aggressive. Stimming, a practice that many children with Autism use is a form of sensory seeking in which repetitive movements, sounds, or fidgeting help the person stay calm or block out uncomfortable sensory input. 

There are also more subtle indications of sensory seeking, such as a fascination with repetitive tactile sensations, like rubbing textures or flicking switches. 

8. Difficulty Adapting to New Situations

Again, adapting to new situations is often difficult for many children. The difference is that these children frequently have meltdowns during transitions or new activities where sensory experiences are unpredictable. More subtle signs include excessive worry, questions about upcoming events, or reliance on strict routines.

9. Difficulty with Temperature Regulation

SPD can significantly impact a child's ability to regulate body temperature. Children with SPD may have difficulty perceiving or responding to temperature cues accurately. This is because their nervous system may not process sensations of heat or cold in the usual way. These children may feel easily overheated or excessively cold, or in some cases, not notice the heat or cold enough to react appropriately by wearing a coat in the winter. 

This misinterpretation can cause discomfort, inappropriate dressing for weather conditions, and challenges in engaging comfortably in activities that involve temperature changes. As such, managing the environmental temperature, choosing appropriate clothing, and knowing how to keep your child comfortable in the heat is essential for their well-being.

Reach Out Today for Support! 

If you recognize these signs and are unsure if your child has a sensory processing issue, there is help. Your pediatrician, local school district, and local government have programs to help assess children and provide them with the help they need. Learning how to manage SPI early will help your child better navigate their sensory world and give them a bright future! 

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