You sit down with your baby to use play dough, a texture they haven’t experienced yet. You place it in their hand and immediately they throw it and start to cry. Before you know it, they’re in the midst of a full-blown meltdown. Or maybe you start to notice that anytime you’re around a lot of people or noise, your little one screams. What’s going on?
Extreme reactions to sensory input could be a sign of Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). SPD is common in children with autism, ADHD and other disorders, but it can also stand alone. There are currently no hard statistics on its prevalence, but some research suggests that as many as 1 in 20 young children may have SPD.
What is Sensory Processing Disorder?
SPD is a condition that affects the way the brain processes information that comes through the senses. A child with SPD might be overly sensitive (hypersensitive) to sensory input, causing them to scream and cry when music feels too loud, for example. Other children are under-sensitive (hyposenstive) to sensory input. These children crave sensory input, and may engage in behaviors such as head-banging or thrill-seeking. Some children have a mix of both hypersensitive and hyposensitive symptoms.
SPD is difficult for children, but it can also be very hard on parents and caregivers. Hypersensitive children often have strong aversions to certain textures and foods, making everything from bath time to dinner time a struggle. Hyposenstive children may participate in harmful behaviors, like eating inedible objects, to fulfill their sensory needs. It’s also common for children with SPD to have frequent tantrums during which they’re inconsolable.
Symptoms of Sensory Processing Disorder
SPD can be tricky to diagnose, because symptoms often overlap with common baby and toddler behaviors. The key is noticing whether the behaviors are frequent and ongoing. Some signs you might notice in your little one include:
- Being delayed with crawling, walking, or running
- Not noticing when hurt, or not seeming to be in pain
- Acting overly in pain with a small bump or scrape
- Having eating problems, like choking on foods, trying to eat nonedible objects, or avoiding specific textures, flavors, or temperatures (no cold foods, for example)
- Resisting hugs or cuddles
- Consistently needing to be touched, hugged, or even squeezed
- Head-banging, picking at skin, or having other behaviors that might cause pain
- Avoiding certain textures, like anything sticky or bumpy
- Disliking the feeling of clothing (feels itchy/uncomfortable/in pain when in clothing or specific types of clothing)
- Walking or running into things frequently
- Throwing a tantrum when it’s time to move to a new activity
- Being afraid to swing, slide, or use other playground equipment
- Crying or screaming when they hear music or loud talking, or feel that lights are too bright
- Being unable to sit still
Help for Sensory Processing Disorder
If your child exhibits several of these symptoms on a frequent and ongoing basis, it’s important to talk to your pediatrician or a pediatric occupational therapist.
In many cases, a “sensory diet” can help. A sensory diet is a personalized plan for your child to tune into the inputs that are challenging for them, and find ways to cope. For example, a child seeking constant touch may benefit from frequent use of a weighted blanket or regular visits to a play gym. Your child’s occupational therapist can prescribe a sensory diet filled with activities and tools you can do outside of therapy to help them progress.
Sensory processing issues are very challenging for both children and parents or caregivers. Thankfully, there is a broad range of activities that can help your child feel more comfortable with sensory stimuli. Talk to your child’s therapist about adding BabySparks activities into their treatment plan; they can be another fun way to improve sensory development!