6 Ways To Tell Your Child Has Sensory Processing Disorder

6 Ways To Tell Your Child Has Sensory Processing Disorder

Sensory is one of the new buzz words in therapy nowadays. The more obvious description for the term sensory is relating to the five commonly known senses: sight, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching. This is a correct interpretation of the word, however, it includes much more, especially with regard to abnormal sensory functioning.

Sensory Processing Disorder, also known as SPD, is a disorder involving the brain’s inability to accurately process certain sensory input. Since the brain is unable to process and respond to sensory input in a typical way, this causes different reactions and behaviors. This means something as simple as a loud noise may cause someone with SPD to cry, run, hide in fear, or scream.

What other behaviors or symptoms might someone with SPD demonstrate? Two children with SPD may demonstrate very different symptoms and behaviors. In this article, I highlight 6 common presentations of children with SPD.

1) Your child often complains of tired eyes

This could point toward a hypersensitive visual system causing fatigued eyes. Your child may also avoid reading, watching TV, or tasks that require prolonged and focused eye gaze. 

Certain lights may cause tired eyes and your child may frequently take visual breaks. Maybe this looks as if your child is often napping, or just closing their eyes and stepping away from it all. If your child is experiencing these symptoms, this sensitivity may trigger a tantrum or behavioral outburst.

How to improve this

Encourage your child to practice activities that strengthen the visual system, such as word puzzles, jumbles, and “spot the difference” pictures. If your child begins to practice them regularly, they may experience less fatigue and strengthened visual skills. Allow your child to take breaks as needed to complete certain activities or homework. Dedicate a space in your home where your child is able to meditate and rest their eyes. An occupational therapist may be able to provide targeted therapy to improve visual motor skills and other sensory deficits.

RELATED: 5 Reasons Every Toddler Should Get an Eye Exam

2) Hair brushing is a big issue

Problems with any form of touch often indicate an overly sensitive tactile system. Brushing your child’s hair may take hours and your child may not tolerate more than a few brush strokes before screaming or running away.

Your child also might respond differently to your hugs. This is usually not the common “not wanting to hug your parent” avoidance, rather a trigger that causes screaming. Light touches on the arm, playing tag or any game which involves touching may cause strong reactions. Getting dressed may be an endless cycle of cutting off clothing tags and finding new, loose fabrics that do not itch.

How to improve this

It can help to use detangler and a wide-toothed comb if your child has long hair. Buy tagless clothing with natural fibers, such as cotton, as these tend to be more comfortable for children. Allow your child to wear loose-fitting clothing. During colder weather, try layers that can easily be taken off. Try to minimize the fear around touching by limiting hands-on interactions. Consult an occupational therapist to develop a plan to improve additional tactile defensiveness.

3) Mealtime brings out the pickiest eating habits

Does your child spit up food with a texture they don’t like? Hard and crunchy foods may cause your child to not eat anything in front of them. This makes mealtimes difficult and usually means you have to cook separate meals with your child’s favorite food. 

If your child requests softer foods, cereal may be their go-to food. Or, maybe your child’s doctor even recommended nutritional shakes to make sure they are getting all their essential vitamins. Sensitivity to foods and activities involving the mouth may indicate oral-motor defensiveness.

How to improve this

Provide a structure surrounding meals to avoid unpredictable interactions. If your child tolerates it, experiment with small amounts of different foods to determine if there are other options. A dietitian or nutritionist may be able to provide more targeted nutritional recommendations that your child enjoys.

RELATED: 5 Ways To Naturally Encourage Your Child’s Development

4) Certain smells are too much to handle

Most people don’t like bad smells, but this is different from that. Smells that are typically pleasant or neutral are downright foul to your child. 

Your child may run, cover their nose, or scream in response to smells they do not like. This may make each part of the day difficult, as your child may be sensitive to the smell of their new clothes, the laundry detergent, your perfume, body soap, scented candles, or even dryer sheets. Smells of certain foods may make mealtime a struggle too.

How to improve this

Try to minimize the number of variable smells in your home. Stay away from diffusers with essential oils and anything with an overwhelming or dominant scent. Remember, what is overwhelming to your child may not be overwhelming to you. Use natural products for light cleaning, such as lemon juice mixed with water, as this will dull certain scents. When cooking meals or doing house cleaning, open windows, and use fans to ensure any major smells do not linger.

5) Loud noises seem to be too loud

Noises such as fire drills, car alarms, vacuums, and trains may send your child into a tailspin. Even the sound of a car door or alarm clock might get your child’s day off to a bad start. Your child may cover their ears, run away from the sound, or hide under the blankets to get away from the noise. These behaviors point toward sensitive ears also known as auditory defensiveness.

How to improve this

It may be difficult to entirely avoid loud noises, yet taking trips to quieter places whenever possible is helpful. Museums, libraries, spas, hiking, and more all offer relatively quiet activities. Dedicate a space in your home where your child is able to take a break if sounds begin to bother them. If your child is already triggered by loud noises, allow them to self-soothe by speaking in low, calming voices and encouraging them it will be okay. Allow your child to take a break and participate in one of their favorite activities to calm them.

6) Swinging is not their favorite activity

Your child may not like activities that other children like, such as swings, see-saws, bounce houses, or anything else with a lot of movement. This may be because their vestibular system is over-responsive and these activities make them dizzy, lightheaded, and nauseous.

Younger children may not be able to say they are not feeling well, so they scream and tantrum in place of opting out or declining these activities. Either way, your child will prefer more sedentary or still activities.

How to improve this

Avoiding certain playground activities is an obvious way to help your child manage this sensory sensitivity. Help your child seek other ways to be active, such as basic yoga and walking or biking on flat ground. Encourage your child to take breaks when playing with friends, as this will allow them to better tolerate activities that may cause discomfort. Consult an occupational therapist for more targeted recommendations for vestibular defensiveness.

RELATED: 6 Easy Ways To Enhance Your Child’s Health Without Them Knowing

Other types of sensory responses

Above I outlined numerous ways a child with SPD exhibits defensiveness to certain sensory input. Your child may have SPD but present with very different symptoms which may indicate under-responsiveness rather than over-responsiveness. This may mean constantly needing to put things in their mouth or eating lots of hard and crunchy foods (under-responsive oral-motor system) or needing loud music or repetitive instructions to pay attention (under-responsive auditory system).

Under-responsiveness also includes staring at bright colors, changing shapes, and vivid cartoons (under-responsive visual system) or constantly smelling objects or food before interacting with it (under-responsive olfactory system). Your child may always be on the move and seeks out fast activities with a lot of jumping, crashing, hopping (under-responsive vestibular system) or needs to touch anything and anyone before fully approaching them (under-responsive tactile system).

RELATED: The ABCs of Raising Healthy and Happy Children


If your child is demonstrating these sensory sensitivities, do your best to be understanding and work with them. Small activities will be made more difficult by your child’s preferences, however, consulting a doctor will provide you with a clear diagnosis. 

Your doctor will provide you with more information and refer your child to a neurodevelopmental specialist, occupational therapist, and/or speech therapist to provide sensory integration treatment. These specialists are all experts in the area of sensory treatment and will provide recommendations to improve your daily lives.