15 Sensory Red Flags You May Be Missing
Though it's gaining recognition, Sensory Processing Disorder is still largely unrecognized by our medical, educational and mental health institutions.
There are many reasons for this, none of which has anything to do with the validity of SPD as a condition that affects millions of children (don't get me going on this!).
Due to the lack of awareness, many children who are struggling with underlying sensory processing issues and would greatly benefit from sensory integration therapy are not receiving the most effective intervention.
If the child’s symptoms don't fit neatly into a diagnostic box (like Autism, ADHD or Speech), his "quirky" and "strange" behaviors are often dismissed and parents are told not to worry, "he'll grow out of it."
If their concerns are taken seriously, they're often referred to a specialist who isn't trained to recognize and address the signs of sensory processing issues. While the intervention the child receives may be helpful (speech therapy, play therapy, ABA therapy), if the sensory piece is not properly addressed, the child will continue to struggle (as will his parents!).
My mission with Sensory Mom is to spread awareness about sensory processing issues so our sensory-sensitive kiddos can get the help they need in order to thrive and parents can get the support they need to better understand their child's "quirky" behavior.
It can be extremely challenging to parent a child who has sensory processing issues and it's even more challenging when you don't understand them!
Before we dive in, it's important to understand that we all have sensory-sensitivities. You may be sensitive to noise (I am!) or maybe you're sensitive to certain textures or smells. Having a few sensitivities does not mean you have Sensory Processing Disorder.
Same goes with your child. If he has a couple of "odd" behaviors (gets startled by loud noises or will only wear certain clothes), but otherwise does just fine, he's probably within the norm and does not need intervention.
Having said that, my guess is that if you've found your way to my site, your child has more than a couple sensitivities which are impacting his social, emotional and physical development. In that case, if you see a pattern of several behaviors on this list, it would be a good idea to find an occupational therapist who is certified in sensory integration (SI certified) and schedule an evaluation. You can click here to find one.
Here are 15 sensory red flags you (and your child's pediatrician and teacher) may be missing:
Important note- this list is to be used as a guide, NOT to diagnose.
1. Avoids movement. This was a big one for my son. In fact, it was the reason our pediatrician finally listened to my concerns and referred us to a pediatric physical therapist for an evaluation.
While the other babies in our playgroup were happily wiggling around on the floor, reaching for things, pulling their toes up to their mouths and rolling side to side, my son preferred to be held and would cry hsyterically when he was placed on his back.
Babies, toddlers and children who avoid movement- who tend to cry and become dysregulated when they are placed on their backs for diaper changes, who avoid playground equipment like the plague or who steer clear of activites like riding bikes and scooters- may have an underlying vestibular processing issue.
2. Frequently walks on toes. There other reasons besides sensory that kids toe-walk, but the most common is sensory-related. Often it's a sign that your child has poor proprioceptive processing which means his body needs more input through his joints and muscles in order to register where he is in space.
Walking up on the toes is a great way to get this input through the leg joints. My older son toe-walked until he was three years old. Addressing his vestibular processing issues through sensory intergration therapy helped as did seeing a physical therapist who specialized in gait issues.
3. Never seems to get dizzy. This is definitely a sign of a vestibular processing issue in which the brain has an under-responsive post-rotary nystagmus (PRN). Kids with PRN can spin and spin and spin (and spin!) and will not get dizzy because the brain doesn't register the rotary input.
4. Loves to squeeze into tight spots. Squeezing into tight spaces provides firm pressure for kids who are seeking proprioceptive input. If your child is frequently squeezing himself in between or behind furniture, he's most likely unconsciously looking for ways to calm his nervous system, so let him have at it!
5. Avoids group settings such as parties or play dates. This was another red flag for my son. When he was younger, parties were not his jam (to say the least!). CLICK HERE to read about "The Dreaded Birthday Party."
Kids who shy away from group settings are often labeled as just that- "shy." Parents (like me!) are repeatedly told by family, friends, their pediatrician (their own husband!), not to worry, their child will eventually "grow out of it."
But, sensory-sensitive kids who avoid group settings are not necessarily avoiding them because they are "shy." Group situations like birthday parties, play dates, holiday get-togethers etc. are multi-sensory, dynamic environments in which the child is processing auditory, visual and tactile input as well as navigating unpredictable social interactions. So, basically a sensory-sensitive kid's worst nightmare!
Instead of coaxing them to join in, understand that your child might be perfectly happy observing from a distance or skipping the event all together.
6. Particular about clothes. Clothing gives a lot of tactile input, from the type of fabric (cotton, polyester, wool) to the tags to the weight of the clothing (a heavy jacket vs. a light t-shirt). If your child has extreme clothing preferences, it could be a sign that he's "sensory defensive," and is over-responding to the tactile input. Rest assured that he's not trying to be difficult on purpose; whatever clothing he's reacting to really is causing him discomfort.
7. Chews everthing in sight. Did you know that your jaw is your strongest muscle? Fascinating, right? Kids who chew or bite everything in sight are likely seeking proprioceptive input through their jaw muscle which is calming and organizing to the nervous system.
8. Doesn't understand the concept of personal space. If your kid is always up in everyone's business, it could be a sign of decreased body awareness and under-registration of proprioceptive input. When you're not sure where exactly your body is in space, how can you respect others' boundaries?
When this sensory signal is misunderstood, parents, family, friends and teachers tend to view the child as being "annoying." He's usually given negative attention and is blamed for something that he doesn't have control over.
Here's a great children's book about personal space to help teach your child about its importance.
9. Does. Not. Sit. Still. This is my younger son. Our joke is that he has "ants in his pants." This kid is always moving. I mean, always. Sigh. It can be very annoying/exhausting!
The sensory explanation for kids in constant motion is under-registration of vestibular input. If a child isn't detecting vestibular input, he will constantly seek it out, hence the non-stop movement. Directing him towards activities such as swinging, sliding, swimming, wheelbarrow walking and gymnastics will help curb his overactivity.
10. Prefers to W sit. "W" sitting is when, instead of sitting "criss cross apple sauce," a child sits on the floor with his legs forming a "W." It can be indicative of poor proprioceptive processing and postural instability.
Besides causing problems for the hip and knee joints, it also discourages crossing midline and trunk rotation, both of which are crucial for brain development.
11. Overreacts to minor cuts and scrapes. When my son gets so much as a teeny little scratch, he reacts as if he's just severed a limb. No joke! This is a hard one for parents, especially for dads of boys, who tend to take a "toughen up" approach.
If your child is in the same boat, understand that his body truly registers what seem like minor cuts and scrapes as being very painful. Try to suspend your judgments and avoid saying things like, "that wasn't a big deal," or "that didn't hurt." The fact is you don't really know how it felt for your child. If he routinely "overreacts" to minor cuts and scrapes, he's most likely tactile defensive.
12. Craves vibration. Does your child lean up against the washing machine when it's on, love to get close to loud speakers or love his electric toothbush a little too much? The vibration from these activities gives proprioceptive input which your sensory-sensitive kid's body tends to seek out. This type of input helps regulate his nervous system. So, next time he won't let go of that toothbrush, you'll know why!
13. Appears clumsy. Clumsiness (poor gross motor skills) can be a sign of an underlying vestibular processing issue which is generally the root of SPD. If your child is under-registering vestibular input, he will have decreased body awareness, poor motor planning, muscle tone abnormalities (high or low tone), postural instability and weight shifting difficulties, all of which will cause him to appear "clumsy."
My son under-registers vestibular input and had a lot of trouble with gross motor skills when he was younger. He's six and a half now and if you saw him zipping around on his bike, throwing a football, or boogie boarding, you'd never guess that he was "clumsy" as a toddler and pre-schooler.
Receiving sensory integration therapy dramatically improved his gross motor skills. Now he's downright coordinated! So, know that if your child falls into this category, there is intervention that can help.
14. Avoids messy play. Kids with sensory processing issues are often tactile-defensive, meaning they're over-responsive to certain textures. For these kids, "messy" textures such as finger paints, mud, sand, shaving cream, play doh, slime etc. can be extremely uncomfortable.
When my son was two years old, I signed him up for a toddler art class- not my most well thought out parenting decision. The first activity was finger painting. Within minutes of just watching the other kids put their hands in the paint, he was screaming as if someone was torturing him.
15. Refuses to walk barefoot on grass, sand or new surface. This is another sign of tactile defensiveness. Like the hands, the bottoms of the feet have a ton of tactile receptors. For a tactile defensive child, certain surfaces that to us are no big deal acutally feel painful.
If you've noticed several of the above sensory red flags, find an occupational therapist in your area who is certified in sensory integration and schedule an evaluation. Click here for a directory of providers.
In the meantime, there are several things you can do at home to help your child with his sensitivities. I highly recommend getting the book Understanding Your Child's Sensory Signals, written by occupational therapist, Angie Voss. She decodes every "quirky" sensory behavior imaginable AND gives specific strategies to help each behavior.
What were your child's sensory red flags? What were the first "strange" behaviors you noticed that had you wondering if something was a little "off"? Leave your comments below, the Sensory Mom community and I would love to hear from you.
If you need support understanding your child's sensory needs CLICK HERE to schedule a FREE 30-minute strategy session.