Could Sensory Processing Disorder explain your Child’s Behaviour?

A mum called me one day and said:

“I’ve had it up to here…my 3 year- old daughter is constantly throwing tantrums, she’s clumsy, she screams if her face gets wet when I’m trying to help her get washed and goes crazy if we go into a public bathroom and the hand dryer goes off! Honestly Elaine, I can’t cope anymore! Please help us!”

Most sensory problems that Julia described above are very often noticed in the first few years of a child’s life. Apart from the problems with the five senses, like feeling, seeing, hearing, tasting, and smelling – the parent may notice things like clumsiness and difficulties with fine motor skills like writing and fastening buttons or tying shoelaces.

So, what are the main signs and symptoms of sensory processing disorder?

These are:

  • Overwhelm in noisy places where there are a lot of people
  • Discomfort to bright sunlight
  • Hates having hair brushed or washed
  • Hates getting wet
  • A dislike to either hot or cold
  • High or low pain threshold
  • Difficulty holding a pencil
  • Clumsiness – dropping things
  • Dislike of certain clothes – itchiness
  • Difficulty catching a ball
  • Difficulty using children’s scissors

When a child is struggling with sensory issues – it all becomes too much for him or her. Going into a noisy café could easily trigger him and his behaviour may change in an instant – he may become tearful, aggressive, or just run out!

Another scenario maybe when you go to a restaurant for lunch and the  French fries they serve your son are slightly darker in colour than the chips you make him at home – he says he’s not going to eat them and throws a tantrum. Then you take him into the bathroom to wash his hands and somebody puts the hand dryer on and that’s just the straw that breaks the camels back as the sound resonates in his head!!

Sensory processing issues are now looked on as a symptom of autism because most children and adults on the spectrum also display a number of sensory problems. Also, children who have been diagnosed with ADHD, OCD and other developmental delays seems to have several sensory traits too.

Parents quite often notice odd behaviours and mood swings in their child which they are not used to seeing, so there is an obvious change in the child’s behaviour. When I see parents with a toddler in the supermarket and she or he is having a really bad tantrum and the mum is getting very angry, I’m often tempted to go and explain to mum that their little one may be struggling with all the audio and visual stimuli in the store and can’t help their emotions – they literally don’t understand themselves, why they are behaving like that. These meltdowns are so severe and seem to go on for so long, this alone should ring alarm bells to the mum or dad that this is something more than just the “terrible two’s”.

The child might flee!

A common thread in a child’s behaviour when he is struggling with sensory processing disorder, is for him to flee from a situation where he feels threatened. If you see a child dashing out of a shop, a noisy room, or a classroom, he may just be running from something that is really upsetting him, but the parent or the carers may not realise what it is as there was nothing obvious. What’s basically happening is the child is having a panic response to normal sensations that the majority of us take for granted and think they are normal. A child in stimulation overload usually heads off towards calm places, so the parent has to be careful when they are out with the child, especially if they are near a river or a lake.

Extra senses!

Together with the five normal senses of touch, taste, hearing, smell and sight, there are two extra internal senses of body awareness called Proprioception and Vestibular- which is movement. When the brain can’t process all the information coming in at once – so for example when a child is in a situation where all his senses are being stretched – maybe he’s in a soft play facility but there are a lot of children and so it’s very overwhelming – noisy – bright lights – smells from the café etc.. it feels like a traffic jam or a thunderstorm in their head, with different signals coming in from all directions so the poor child feels confused and frightened.

The proprioceptive senses are found in the joints and ligaments. This system gives signals to the brain where the body is in relation to an object and allows the body to move appropriately. Those children who are hyposensitive love activities like jumping and bumping (trampolining) as well as pressure – like being given a nice tight hug. However, if they are hypersensitive, they may have problems understanding where their body is in relation to an object, so they may crash into things and appear very clumsy. They may not be able to catch a ball if someone throws it to them, and they absolutely hate being hugged!

The vestibular sense found in the inner ear, so this relates to balance and co- ordination. Those children with hypo – sensitivity love to spin around, and love been thrown around and jumping etc.. But, the children with hyper-sensitivity will be frightened of those activities and will probably not be keen to learn to ride a bike or climb up on to the climbing frame.

How to help your child?

Once you have realised that your child is struggling with sensory issues you can either get him some help from a children’s therapist who can help him regulate his emotions. The therapist will work both mum and child as the mum will need to know how to help her child on a daily basis. Or, you can get a diagnosis from a child psychiatrist to confirm that the child has sensory processing disorder. A good therapist will work with the child over a period of around 6 – 12 weeks and teach the child some strategies to help regulate their emotions. She/he will also help the child to understand what triggers the meltdowns so that the child can either avoid them or knows how to cope in any given situation.

Elaine was a great! She put my mind at rest straightaway as I was thinking there was something seriously wrong with Stefania. She explained in very easy to understand terms, what sensory processing disorder was and how it affects children in different ways.

She taught Steffi to use her words to communicate with me when she started to feel overwhelmed which was great – she would say “Mummy, the traffic light has changed” and that was her way of saying “I’m feeling overwhelmed and over- stimulated”  That would tell me that I needed to make sure we could be somewhere where she could be calm for a little while and I would give her the weighted blanket of vest which would make her feel better immediately. To be honest I don’t know how I would have coped had I not found Elaine at Focus Hypnotherapy. Her gentle, caring way of working with Steffi was lovely”.

Julia, with three- year old Stefania

If you are worried that your child is struggling with sensory issues, do contact me and I will be happy to advise.

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