6 Potential Causes of Your Child's Sensory Processing Issues

A couple decades ago, the rate of autism was 1 in 10,000.

Today it’s 1 in 68.

Shocking, right?

Similarly, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of kids who are being diagnosed with sensory processing issues, ADHD, learning disabilities and developmental delays.

What could possibly be the cause?

One theory, that you won't likely hear from your western-trained doctor, is that when kids present with an emotional or behavioral issue, it's often masking something completely unexpected; something physical.

Just ask, Maria Rickert Hong, former Wall Street analyst turned Certified Wholistic Health Counselor, mom of two boys with Sensory Processing Disorder and author of Almost Autism.

After being repeatedly told by western doctors that her sons "were fine," despite an array of alarming symptoms including severe feeding issues, weight loss, poor motor skills, and projectile vomiting, Rickert Hong decided to take matters into her own hands.

Her background as an analyst came in handy as she began to research the cause of her sons' issues. Determined to find the answers, she dug and dug until she did.

Her sons are now fully recovered from Sensory Processing Disorder.

Her life's mission is to educate parents on what she calls the “perfect storm” of six factors that are the cause of neurodevelopmental disorders: toxicity, gut dysbiosis, immune dysregulation, nutritional deficiencies, hormonal imbalances and chronic inflammation.

Let’s take a look at each factor.

1. Toxicity.

Based on her extensive research, Rickert Hong believes that toxicity is “one of the, if not THE, main reason why there is an epidemic of children’s chronic illnesses today."

She explains that we're exposed to toxins on a daily basis through our air, water, food and personal-care products.

Unfortunately, we can't rely on governmental regulatory agencies like the FDA, CDC or the EPA to protect us from harmful toxic chemicals. That means we have to be our own advocates. It’s our job as parents to educate ourselves on what toxins are out there as well as how we can limit our children’s exposure to them.

The toxins Rickert Hong is referring to (and the surprising things they’re found in) include:

  • Mercury (found in silver fillings, certain kinds of fish, flu vaccines, food additives, mascara, and fluorescent light bulbs)
  • Lead (found in houses built before 1978, house paint, old house pipes, ceramic glazes, certain red lipsticks, non-locally produced honey, tap water, baby food)
  • Aluminum (found in aluminum cans, foil, pots and pans, many anti-perspirants, many vaccines)
  • Arsenic (non-organic chicken, insecticides, well water, even certain brands of apple juice!)
  • Vaccines (which may contain a mix of formaldehyde, aluminum, phenoxyelthanol, bovine cow serum, MSG)
  • Pharmaceuticals (such as Tylenol, Prevacid, Miralax, cortisone)
  • Radiation
  • Pesticides
  • Phthalates (found in plastics, many personal-care products, food and beverage packaging)
  • BPA (found in canned foods and polycarbonate plastics)
  • Flouride (found in toothpaste, drinking water, anti-depressants)
  • Chlorine (found in drinking and swimming pool water, pesticides, Splenda)
  • Flame Retardants (found in children’s sleepwear, Mountain Dew, fabric furniture, mattresses and electrical/ computer-cable coverings)
  • Teflon
  • Parabens (found in many personal-care products, and cough syrups)
  • Triclosan (found in anti-bacterial hand sanitizers and soaps)
  • Mold
  • EMFs (common sources include fluorescent lights, cell phones, wi-fi systems, smart meters, large electric devices)
  • Perfumes and Scented Products
  • Carrageenan (found in many ice creams, soups, non-dairy milks, deli meats and low-fat foods)
  • GMO’s
  • Artificial Colors (found in processed foods, cough syrups, decongestants, mouthwashes and toothpastes)
  • Artificial Sweeteners
  • Preservatives (found in all processed foods)

Oof! That's quite a list! If you’re feeling overwhelmed (like I was when I saw this list!), take a deep breath, I'm here to help!

While we can’t completely eradicate our children’s exposure to toxins, there are many simple things we can do to limit it:

  • Cut out or at least try to limit processed foods (simple, but not easy!)
  • Become more conscious of the ingredients in the food and personal-care products we’re buying
  • Consult the EWG before buying personal-care products for children
  • Switch from plastic to glass containers
  • Use non-plastic baggies for lunches
  • Space out our child’s vaccines
  • Get a water filter system in your house.
  • Turn off the wifi in our homes when we don’t need it
  • Test our homes for mold
  • Eat organic whenever possible
  • Avoid canned foods
  • Add some indoor plants to our homes
  • Open windows to circulate air
  • Choose VOC-free paints for our homes
  • Buy furniture made from natural, untreated wood

When we feel overwhelmed by something it’s easy to throw up our arms and dismiss it. But, little changes over time do make a difference. Start small by picking one thing from this list to focus on. Then, once you're ready, choose another, then another and so on.

There are many options available for testing your child for toxin exposure, though it has to be done through an integrative pediatrician or functional medicine doctor (your western-trained pediatrician is likely not trained to do this). If you're in the Los Angeles area, click here for a referral. If you're in the San Diego or Orange County area, click here.

2. Gut dysbiosis

Hippocrates (aka- The Father of Medicine) famously said, “All disease begins in the gut.” Well, it’s taken modern medicine quite awhile to get on board, but research over the past two decades is finally catching up to what Hippocrates knew over 2000 years ago.

His assertion regarding the importance of gut health has serious implications for what’s going on with our kiddos who have neurological challenges like sensory processing disorder, autism, and ADHD, as well as other health conditions like allergies, asthma, and eczema: Research now shows that many, if not all of these conditions have gut dysbiosis as a core, underlying feature.

Gut dysbiosis happens when there’s a disruption in the balance of the “good” and “bad” bacteria in our intestine: More “bad” bacteria than “good” bacteria = Houston, we have a problem!

The resulting problems from gut dysbiosis range from digestive issues, food sensitivities and allergies to headaches, chronic infections and fatigue.

To learn about the specific link between gut dysbiosis and sensory processing issues, click here.

If you have a child with sensory processing issues or any other type of developmental challenge, having him tested for gut dysbiosis can be tremendously helpful and possibly a developmental game-changer.

Once again, this isn’t something your regular western doctor will typically test for. You will have to find a practitioner who uses one of the following tests:

  • Comprehensive digestive stool analysis (CDSA)
  • Organic Acids Test (OAT)
  • Small Intestine Bacteria Overgrowth (SIBO)

We just had our younger son tested through an integrative pediatrician using the OAT. We’re awaiting the results… I’ll keep you posted!

3. Immune Dysregulation

Since 70 percent of your child's immune system is located in his gut, it's likely that if he has gut issues, he also has an immune system that responds inappropriately- either with an overactive or an insufficient response to perceived threats.

Signs of immune dysregulation include:

Focusing on your child's gut health will greatly improve his immune function, in turn decreasing inflammation and increasing overall well-being. Click here for tips on how to improve your child's gut health.

4. Nutritional Deficiencies

Rickert Hong states that, "deficiencies of critical nutrients is a given in a child with Sensory Processing Disorder, as well as in any person with a chronic disease."

Corroborating this statement is Dr. Lisa Loegering, a board-certified pediatrician turned integrative medicine doctor who specializes in children with developmental issues, who has found that nearly every child she's seen in her practice has nutritional deficiencies contributing to his challenges.

In fact, she recommends that most children take the following supplements (consult your doctor before supplementation):

Other nutritional deficiencies common in children with neurological issues include: iodine, iron, glutathione, amino acids, methylated nutrients, melatonin and pancreatic enzymes.

Depending on your child's specific profile, the effects of nutritional deficiencies range from anxiety, picky eating and behavioral issues to sleep issues, language delays and allergies.

Talk to your pediatrician about having your child tested for nutritional deficiencies. Most pediatricians will test for iron and vitamin D, but to rule out the others, you'll most likely have to go through an integrative pediatrician or a functional medicine doctor.

5. Hormonal Imbalances

Acoording to Rickert Hong, hormonal imbalances, including adrenal fatigue and low thyroid function, "are a commonly overlooked causative factor in children with neurodevelopmental disorders."

Children with sensory processing challenges have nervous systems that are more frequently engaged in a stress response due to the overwhelming barrage of sensory input that their brain doesn't quite know what to do with.

The result? After putting in some serious overtime, their adrenals are tapped out!

Signs of adrenal fatigue include:

  • Difficulty getting up in the morning
  • Fatigue is not relieved by sleep
  • Craving salty foods
  • Lethargy
  • Requires increased effort to do everyday tasks
  • Decreased ability to handle stress
  • Increased time to recover from illness, injury or trauma
  • Symptoms increase if meals are skipped
  • Decreased stamina
  • Blood-sugar swings
  • Anxiety

My older son literally checks every symptom on this list! Our intergrative pediatrician, the amazing Dr. Katiraei, gave us an adrenal tincture that has helped him tremendously. In fact, recently he stopped taking it and there has been a noticable increase in his symptoms.

Click here for Dr. K's adrenal handout.

Low thyroid function is another common hormonal imbalance in children with neurodevelopmental issues. Endocronologist, Dr. Raphael Kellman, believes that 70-80 percent of children with Sensory Processing Disorder, autism, developmental delays, ADHD and PDD-NOS have low thyroid function.

Thyroid function is important for immune function: if your child's thyroid isn't working properly, neither is his immune system. Signs of low thyroid function include:

  • Fatigue
  • Sluggishness
  • Poor Coordination
  • Increased sensitivity to cold
  • Pale, dry skin
  • Brittle fingernails and hair
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Scalloped tongue
  • Poor digestion
  • Low body temperature
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Adrenal fatigue
  • High cholesterol
  • Low stamina
  • Low motivation
  • Forgetfulness
  • Foggy thinking
  • Irritability
  • Poor immunity
  • Low blood pressure
  • Drowsiness
  • Hypotonia
  • Fine-motor problems
  • Repetitive behavior
  • Social dysfunction
  • Poor growth
  • Delayed puberty
  • Delayed development of permanent teeth
  • Attention problems
  • Hyperactivity

To rule out low thyroid function, ask your doctor to test your child for: T3, T4, free T3, free T4, reverse T3 and thyroid antibodies.

6. Chronic Inflammation

It's well-accepted in the medical community that chronic inflammation is the root cause of many illnesses and neurodevelopmental disorders such as Sensory Processing Disorder, autism, and ADHD.

Inflammation in and of itself is not a bad thing- it's a defense mechanism by which the body tries to heal itself, is a necessary part of our body's immune response and is beneficial when we get injured or have an infection.

However, when it becomes chronic and systemic, it leads to all sorts of problems.

Rickert Hong explains that "in a child with neuroinflammation, neural processes can go haywire: senses aren't processed correctly, executive functions aren't executed properly and the child's ability for reasoning and interacting socially are lowered."

What causes chronic inflammation? A familial history of autoimmune disease, toxin exposure, gut dysbiosis, nutritional deficiences, stress, and sugar/processed foods.

To test for inflammation, ask your child's doctor to run CRP (C-reactive protein) and homocysteine tests. These are common tests that are available from most western pediatricians.

In the meantime, there are several things you can do to help lower chronic inflammation:

  • Cut out or lower sugar
  • Increase anti-inflammatory foods
  • Eliminate processed foods
  • Eliminate vegetable oils
  • Supplement with magnesium
  • Cut out gluten, dairy and soy
  • Supplement with omega 3 fatty acids
  • Cook with saturated fats or EVOO
  • Do an elimination diet

The dietary stuff can be a major challenge with sensory kids (like my boys!), who are notoriously picky eaters. Remember to start small, adopt the motto "Rome wasn't built in a day" and take it one step at a time. Maybe you buy Sensible Sippers instead of Capri Sun and swap out your vegetable oil for avocado oil.

As James Clear, the author of Atomic Habits (a must-read!) puts it, "all big things come from small beginnings. The seed of every habit is a single, tiny decision."

If you feel overwhelmed by the complexities of your child's development, you're not alone! Trying to understand and get to the root of our child's challenges is difficult to say the least and as much as I hate to say it, it's not something that western medicine is currently equipped to help us with.

If you have a child with developmental issues, who, despite receiving many interventions and therapies has not made much progress, I highly recommend getting a copy of Almost Autism and learning more about these six potential underlying factors.

Step two is to research and find an integrative pediatrician and/or functional medicine doctor in your area who specializes in treating children. If you can't find one or don't have the resources to see one, write down your specific concerns about your child and talk to your western doctor about running some tests.

Dr. Katiraei of Wholistic Kids and Families has recently created an incredible resource for parents of children with severe behavioral/developmental issues, which you can join here. As part of the website, you can take this quiz which will give you an idea of whether any of the six potential factors apply to your child.

Here's what I want you to know and remember: when our children are struggling, there is ALWAYS something more going on underneath the surface. Our job as their parent is to get to the bottom of it.

While western doctors are amazing at many things, the likelihood that yours is trained to recognize or understand the six causes Rickert Hong discovered through her research is slim. My hope is that passing on this information will help guide you to find a practitioner who is so your child can get the help he needs in order to heal.

If you need more support, click here to schedule a complimentary call.

Please leave your questions and comments below, the Sensory Mom community and I would love to hear from you.


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Hi! I'm Cameron, mom of two incredible, "differently-wired" boys who have sensory processing challenges, wife of a nerdy surfer, mindfulness practitioner and Parenting Coach with master's degrees in education and psychology.