Sensory Processing Disorder and How to Recognise it!

When a toddler first shows signs of sensory processing issues it can be absolutely frightening for the parents, especially if this is their first child.

The first thing mum or dad may notice is an unusual aversion or extreme dislike to noise, light, itchy clothes, mud, sand, or even the bath! They may also notice that their little one is a bit clumsy, or has trouble with his fine motor skills, for example when he is holding a pencil or doing his buttons up on his coat.

However, in some children the behaviours could be a little more extreme. The child may suddenly scream if you go to wash his face, or he may start to put unusual things in his mouth like stones or play dough. He may run around in a frenzied manner and crash into things or he may throw a terrible tantrum when you are trying to get him dressed or when in a crowded supermarket.

Sensory Processing as such, is not known as a disorder on its own but the problems are now considered a symptom of Autism because children who ARE on the autistic spectrum often show signs of sensory processing issues. They can also be seen in children with OCD and ADHD, and several other developmental disorders.

Normal tantrums or sensory meltdowns?

Naturally, its normal for a toddler to have tantrums, it’s all part of his normal developmental behaviour. However, when parents notice a huge reaction in their little one’s behaviour, to perhaps a change of environment, or when the routine has been changed at the last minute, you can bet your bottom dollar the child is struggling with sensory difficulties.

A good example of this is a child going to a small nursery school, where he knows everyone there, then taking him in to a supermarket full of people, bright lights, someone shouting over the PA system ( overload of visual and auditory stimulation) you can obviously expect a child with Sensory problems to have a huge tantrum and perhaps take quite a while to be calmed down. This can be terrifying for both the parent and the child who doesn’t really know what’s happening to him.

On occasions, instead of having a tantrum, the child may just run away – or go and hide in a quiet place or under a table where he may feel safe. It’s as if he is running away from something fearful. Basically, he will be having a neurological response to normal situations, a panic attack if you like!

So, what exactly ARE sensory processing issues?

Dr Jean Ayres, in 1972, introduced the notion that certain peoples brains are not able to do what most of us take for granted and that is to process all the data coming in through seven senses ( not five ) to give a good picture of whats happening both externally and internally.

So, together with the other five senses of, touch, taste, smell, hearing and sight, Dr Jean Ayres added two other senses : Proprioceptors and vestibulars ( awareness and movement) When the brain cannot process all this data coming in at once its like a football stadium full of people all in your head!

Proprioceptors are found in the ligaments and joints which allow for motor control.  Those children who are hyposensitive crave input, they love crashing into things and tearing around the house like a bull in a china shop. They also like tight pressure, so they like being hugged and squeezed. However, if they are Hypersensitive, they have difficulty understanding where an object is in relation to their body so they might bump into things and appear very clumsy.

The vestibular receptors which are located inside the inner ear, gives the brain the information which relates to head position and movement. Those children who are hyposensitive are normally constantly on the go, they love spinning around, jumping on trampolines and being thrown in the air. Those who are hypersensitive, however, will more than likely be fearful of activities that need good balance, like climbing or riding a bike. So, they too may appear a bit clumsy.

Helping your child with sensory issues

Children with Sensory Processing Disorder need help at school, on the playground, in the park, at home – in fact, anywhere they go, they will need some helpful tools for coping.

 Here are some ideas for aiding some common problems that children and teens with sensory processing issues have:


  • If your child needs super soft clothing, try extra soft cotton cloth. Make sure you use fabric conditioner on the clothes many times to soften them but beware of using too strong a smelling substance because those with sensitive noses may find the smells a problem
  • Extra tight or extra loose clothing depending on your child’s sensory needs. Teenage girls may better tolerate all-cotton bras with soft cotton bands.
  • Buy seamless socks and tights.

Noise sensitivity

  • Use a fan, or radio set to block unpleasant sounds.
  • Give the child earplugs to use at the most distressing times such as during social occasions.

Bathing and showering

  • The sound of the water filling the bath may be distressing for the child, so try filling the bath with the door closed and then let him in when the bath is ready.
  • Have your child take a bath or shower after others do so that the room is already warm; sometimes, the transition from warm and dressed to cold and undressed is difficult for sensory kids.
  • Try massaging his or her head before a shower or bath to help desensitize him to the sensation of water on the scalp and the feeling of shampoo being rubbed into his hair.
  • Let your child with sensory issues choose which soaps, shampoos, toothpastes, they will use. They can have a very sensitive sense of smell

How do I get help for my sensory child?

The first thing to do is to see your GP and he will more than likely refer you to a Paediatric Psychologist who will diagnose the problem/s.

Your child will need some help with anxiety. One of the mums who brought her sensory child to me said:

I took Alicia to see Elaine at Focus Hypnotherapy because I knew she had a fantastic reputation with helping children with anxiety and sensory issues. She could see straightaway that Alicia had sensory problems and she taught her some great coping techniques so that when she was at school and felt “over loaded” she could use them to calm herself down. This helped Alicia’s anxiety so much that she was like a different child – going to school very confident”.

The other form of help is an Occupational Therapist who will customise a sensory diet for your child, but you must be very consistent and make sure you follow it properly for it to be effective. The goal for your child is to be alert during the school day and focus on his work and to not become anxious or overstimulated so that he shuts down when faced with stressful situations.

Some of what I have said here may be alarming to parents but always remember – a sensitive child is a loving and caring child too!

For further information on how to help your struggling sensory child do contact me at or go through the website:

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