10 often misunderstood sensory processing symptoms

Sensory Play

What is sensory processing disorder? “SPD is a neurophysiologic condition in which sensory input […] is poorly detected, modulated, or interpreted and/or to which atypical responses are observed. Pioneering occupational therapist and psychologist A. Jean Ayres, Ph.D., likened SPD to a neurological ‘traffic jam’ that prevents certain parts of the brain from receiving the information needed to interpret sensory information correctly.”¹

It is also important to note that SPD differs from a “sensory preference.” Choosing to wear your hair down or selecting tighter clothing because you like the way it feels can simply be a matter of preference, but, if those preferences get in the way of your daily routines and make life more difficult, SPD may be one possible explanation. There are many symptoms a child may be exhibiting, but you can see a few of the most overlooked ones in the list below.

1. Avoids Movement – If your child fears climbing playground equipment, roughhousing, or riding a swing, they are likely avoiding vestibular input. That is our sixth sense, the one that affects balance and body awareness. Children who avoid movement may be hypersensitive to vestibular input.

2. Seeks Movement – There are a variety of reasons that kids seem to bounce off the walls at times, but kids that always seem to be jumping, climbing, running, pushing, and roughhousing are typically seeking out proprioceptive input, and sometimes vestibular as well. A child who struggles with a hyposensitive vestibular system responds to it by seeking movement.

3. Frequently Walking on Toes – Children will do this for many reasons. Some do it because they are sensitive to the sensations they are feeling on their feet and prefer as little of their foot to be touching the surface as possible. Sometime children toe-walk because they like the pressure it puts on their joints, which is another way to seek proprioceptive feedback. It can also be the result of a vestibular system that is not processing properly or an impaired visual system. Toe walking is also tied to other things; read more about that here.

4. Clumsy – There are a variety of reasons that a child may seem to fall or bump into objects more than other children, and one of the most overlooked reasons is because the child’s proprioceptive and vestibular systems simply aren’t functioning the way they should be. Knowing where our bodies are in space and in relation to others is key to navigating the world safely, and SPD can make that body awareness more challenging.

5. Likes Bright, Flashing TV Shows and Toys – Certainly, many kids like these! But if your child only wants to watch fast, bright shows, or play with flashing toys, then it may be an indication that they want more visual stimulation. They may also like looking at lights and brightly colored, high contrast books.

6. Doesn’t seem to notice when being talked to or needs directions repeated – Yes, sometimes kids ignore us, and sometimes this is normal! That being said, if it is a frequent recurring issue then it may be a sign that your child’s auditory (or hearing) system is not processing information well. “The inability to understand spoken language in a meaningful way in the absence of what is commonly considered a
hearing loss is called an auditory processing problem.”² 

7. Hides at Parties or Avoids Them – If your child hates going to parties or other public places, it is possible that they may be overstimulated by the noise, lights, and/or people accidentally touching them. For kids with sensory processing difficulties, a party can be extremely stressful, as the sounds, sights, and unexpected touches may be unbearable.

8. Gagging at the Sight, Taste, and Smell of Foods – Although not always sensory, gagging immediately when confronted with foods often happens because the oral and tactile systems are being overwhelmed. Picky eating that goes beyond typical childhood pickiness may very well be tied to sensory processing challenges.

9. Bites Toys or People Unprovoked – If your child seems to bite others or their toys often, usually for no reason, they are probably looking for some deep, intense pressure and proprioceptive input, which is also related to the oral and tactile systems. There are a lot of proprioceptive receptors in the jaw, and they might be chewing on things to regulate themselves.

10. Prefers Tight Clothing – Sometimes kids will want to layer clothes or wear really tight-fitting clothing to give themselves deep pressure. It may seem strange, but the sensation they receive is soothing to the central nervous system – this means they’re trying to regulate themselves! The pressure helps lower their tactile defensiveness, calms them, and may even help them focus better.

Does your child fit into one or more of these descriptions? We offer a sensory checklist as part of our intake packet, and it is free to download (search for OT/Speech Sensory Checklist)! If you find yourself checking multiple boxes, feel free to give us a call to discuss an evaluation.

¹ Star Institute, Understanding Sensory Processing Disorder. Retrieved from Understanding Sensory Processing Disorder.

² American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, Let’s Talk Auditory Processing. Retrieved from Let’s Talk Auditory Processing by Diane Paul-Brown, PhD, CCC-SLP.

Source: Your Kids Table, Sensory Red Flags. Retrieved from 10 Sensory Symptoms You Might Be Missing In Your Child.

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TLC Kids Therapy

We provide a safe, enriching and child friendly environment for therapy. Our mission is to be a blessing to all of the children and families that comes through our doors.

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