If you have a child who reacts intolerably to the sound of a flushing toilet, hates to have their hair washed, or who kicks and screams at the thought of putting on a pair of rain pants, it’s easy to wonder: does my child have a sensory processing disorder? Or, are they just hypersensitive? Do all kids do this?
When you read about sensory processing disorders, including tactile sensitivity (defensiveness) or under sensitivity, you’ll notice that many of the symptoms may sound like a description of your child. Others, perhaps not so much. In fact, you may wonder if YOU have a sensory processing disorder!
For example, experts on this topic will write about children who refuse to let you wipe their nose, or who have social anxiety. They’ll also talk about picky eaters and kids who don’t like homework. But aren’t these behaviours ‘normal’ for children?
While we are no substitute for seeing your doctor or occupational therapist, we will attempt to outline the signs and symptoms to watch out for, if you’re concerned that your child has a sensory issue.
What is a sensory disorder, versus hypersensitivity, versus ‘just being a kid’?
As is the trouble when diagnosing any medical issue, there will always be a ‘line’ drawn between a child expressing a particular trait, or having a full-on ‘problem’ that needs serious intervention.
Take for example, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). We can probably all talk about quirks we have that seem characteristic of this mental disease. Some of us like washing hands after taking out the trash. Some of us like certain routines. Those things don’t mean we have OCD.
On the other hand, a person who can’t stop thinking about their ‘dirty’ hands after taking out the trash, to the point that they can’t do anything else until they wash their hands… well, that might be OCD. Our point is: there is a range, or a gradation of these behaviours. The more they manifest themselves in our lives, the more likely they can be diagnosed as an issue needing treatment. A doctor can say more.
So, the point at which one could say a child has a sensory disorder, versus a hypersensitivity, is related to how much it interferes with their daily, necessary activities. As this resource states:
“A child who cringes at the sound of a flushing toilet is certainly hypersensitive, but he or she probably does not have a sensory processing disorder unless there is a drastic response, such as making loud noises to cover the sound or dropping to the floor with hands pressed tightly against the ears.”
This article also explains the difference between a tantrum, and having a real episode of sensory overstimulation:
“Sensory meltdowns are a reaction to stimuli or something in the environment and are usually beyond the child’s control. A child will stop a tantrum when they get the desired response or outcome, but a sensory meltdown will not stop just by “giving in” to the child.
Another difference between tantrums and sensory meltdowns is that tantrums are often for attention whereas the last thing a child having a sensory meltdown wants is more attention.”
How do you apply the above information, in principle, to your own child?
Sensory disorders are constant. They have major implications when it comes to childhood development. For example, if your child hates the texture of food so much that they won’t eat, they may end up malnutritioned. If they violently oppose touching paper because of how it feels, they will have a hard time getting through school.
As this resource states so wonderfully:
“Our sense of touch is closely tied to our emotions. Perceiving frequent discomfort through this sensory system is likely to make an individual demonstrate emotionally potent reactions. Thus, children who experience this condition are often described as irritable, withdrawn, weepy, angry, etc. It’s difficult to pay attention if a person is thinking about how his clothes feel, or how much it bothered him when someone brushed against his skin while he was standing in line. Individuals who have this condition can cope with it better at some times than they are able at other times.”
And, perhaps our favourite demonstration of how serious this can be for children, is the following, from this article:
“Imagine spending the day in a shirt made of scratchy burlap. Your shoes are two sizes too small, and there’s an industrial-sized fan blowing directly in your face. When you try to eat a bowl of cereal, the texture is like gravel in your mouth, and when you brush your teeth it feels like steel wool against your gums.
This is what tactile dysfunction can feel like.”
Being hypersensitive, on the other hand, is more of an annoyance. It can be managed more easily. For example, a child who hates the feeling of squishy paint or playdough can, with practice, get used to those things with positive reinforcement. Or, they can just not play with playdough, and do crafts with scissors, pencils and glue instead. It’s not as big of a deal. Though, it is something to address. The problem goes away when the trigger goes away.
A ‘normal’ kid throwing tantrums
A so-called, ‘normal kid’ expressing these types of quirks can probably be easily identified. They often grow out of these fears, change them often, or don’t seem bothered by more things as time goes on.
They may just hate the feeling of tomatoes in their mouth. Riding a bike may seem scary at first, but eventually, they get the hang of it. They may scream when you wash their hair… but if you warn them in advance that the water is coming, and they play happily before and after that point, they may be just fine. If they take no other issue with being scrubbed, hugged or otherwise touched, that would also be a sign that they’re probably ok.
If you have any doubts about where your child falls on the spectrum of being ‘normal,’ to ‘hypersensitive’ or having a true, sensory processing disorder (SPD), we encourage you to see a doctor.
What are the signs and symptoms of sensory disorders and hypersensitivity?
As parents, it’s easy to assume that any quirk or development delay in our young child is a disorder, or a sign of something ‘big.’ Of course, it’s important to get an early diagnosis for most medical issues children face, so they can be treated more effectively. However, most of the time, our fears are quenched when we visit a doctor, or speak to parents with similar experiences. So, even if you recognize these symptoms in your child, wait to speak to an expert before becoming too concerned.
With that said, the common traits to look for in a child with with sensitivity problems include:
- Having an aversion to certain textures of food, such as crunchy snacks, smooth yoghurt, or clumps of veggies in spaghetti sauce. It’s also common for a child to want their foods separated and not touching (e.g. beans not touching rice on the plate).
- Avoiding touch. Or, they may express strong sentiments against being hugged, patted on the back, or otherwise ‘normal’ notions of love and affection. On the flip side, they may be under sensitive, and want to always be touching by brushing up against people, sitting close, or intervening in others’ personal space.
- Complaining that shoes are tight or uncomfortable, even when it’s obvious they are snug, or loose.
- Unable to concentrate on anything because they are wearing certain types of clothing. For example, scratchy wool, or a shirt with a clothing tag. They may also be obsessed with where the seams of their socks line up on their feet. Or they may always say that they feel that seam on their toes. Even more, they may hate or love being barefoot.
- Feeling hot or cold too often, with an inability to acclimatize to temperature in a reasonable amount of time.
- Getting upset if they find themselves dirty, or never wanting to be clean. For example, they may hate or love the texture of sand, grass, mud, glue, playdough, etc.
- Crying and complaining about daily grooming. For example, having their teeth brushed, nails clipped or their hair combed or cut. These can feel much more intense for them.
- Never wanting to play games or participate in activities that involve touch. For example, they will hate tickling, clapping, holding hands, standing in line, etc. They may even react violently and angrily if they are touched in these types of activities.
Overall, these children have a neurological disorder that causes them to have an adverse response to over, or under-stimulation. Stimulation (or lack thereof) can be in the form of touch, sight, sound, smell, balance, pressure, emotion, temperature, and so on.
Sensory disorders often overlap with other diagnosable problems
The big trouble with listing the signs and symptoms of sensory disorders and hypersensitivity, is that they often overlap with other medical issues. For example, these behavioural traits have strong connections to attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). When a child has more than one disorder, it is called co-morbidity.
For this reason, it is extremely important to seek the advice of a professional, especially in this context. Don’t start seeking therapeutic home activities you can do with your self-proclaimed hypersensitive child. They may not treat the root cause of their symptoms.
Various terms used to describe sensory disorders and hypersensitivity can be specific
There are various terms you may want to familiarize yourself with, to be prepared for what a doctor may discuss, if you seek help for your child’s sensitivities.
A good breakdown of the subtypes of Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) can be found here. They can be distinct, yet come with similar descriptions. You’ll also notice that people use similar terms interchangeably in this realm of neurological disorders.
Terms you’ll hear when researching this subject can include:
- Tactile sensitivity, tactile defensiveness, tactile dysfunction, hyper-responsivity – this is a sensitivity to the feeling of touch on our skin, including pain, temperature, etc.
- Tactile under sensitivity or hyposensitivity – this is when someone can’t feel enough touch, so they may enjoy physical assertions to be able to ‘feel’ something. They may not feel pain, which can be dangerous. They may always want to be touching something, such as a fidget toy, or another person.
- Misophonia – a disorder where someone is very disturbed by repetitive sounds, such as chewing or tapping.
- Dyspraxia – a condition involving poor motor skills and abilities.
There are treatments and therapies available for children with sensory processing disorders and hypersensitivities
The good news with all of this is that there are solutions that can be sought for sensory processing disorders and hypersensitivity. Children can work with an occupational therapist. That therapist may also advise parents to do at-home activities with a child, to help them cope.
Helping a child with this problem can include protocols like, always warning them before touching them, never approaching them from behind, or practicing tactile touch activities. Rubbing a brush against the forearm, for example, can help a child get used to the feeling (it’s called the Wilbarger Brush Protocol, if you want to look it up). They can also use weighted blankets. Or, they may have a ‘safe word’ with you, when they need time to ‘tune out’ and be alone, in a quiet place without distractions. Fidget toys, breathing techniques, pressure touches – these can all help.
If you think your child can benefit from the above types of exercises, we encourage you (again), to see a doctor or occupational therapist. A diagnosis can go a long way in helping you seek the right treatment for your child’s sensory issues.
See more on our blog:
- How to teach impulse control in early childhood
- Why sensory development skills are important at daycare
- The importance of human touch in early childhood with caregivers
- Does your child need an occupational therapist? Here is what to know
- Benefits of messy play in early childhood; getting dirty for fun is ok!
- How to recognize signs of Autism in early childhood and what to do next
- How to recognize early vision problems in toddlers and preschoolers
- Does my child need a speech therapist? Here is what to know
- What are cognitive developmental milestones in early childhood?