3 Subtle Signs of Sensory Processing Difficulties

Our brains are bombarded with information every moment of every day. Our sensory systems work closely with our brains to be the ultimate self-preservation machines. The scent of spoiled milk, the sound of a car coming, the glare reflecting off of a patch of ice. All of these send up warning signals in the brain, often without us even realizing it. Don’t eat that! Don’t cross the street yet! Go around that ice patch! Through complex neurological systems (known as sensory processing), we are able to instantly react to important sensory information, while automatically tuning out the information we don’t need. 


What happens when these systems aren’t working quite as they should? Sometimes senses are over-responsive to information and aren’t successfully filtering out unnecessary information. Check out our post on auditory sensitivity for a more in-depth discussion on over-responsiveness. A sensory system may be under-responsive if it does not register the information that it should. Many are aware of “sensory meltdowns” or children who have difficulty with loud noises or busy environments. But, not every child with sensory processing challenges has these large reactions. Signs may be subtle and are often missed. It is also critical to note that while sensory challenges are common in autistic children, children do not need to have autism to experience sensory processing difficulties. Keep reading to learn about 3 lesser-known signs that your child may be experiencing sensory processing challenges, and how to get them help. 

1. They bump into things or fall more than other children their age.

If your child constantly bumps into walls, doorways, furniture, other children, or any other object in their environment, they may be experiencing difficulties with their proprioceptive system. This sensory system is responsible for telling us where we are in our environment. It’s what allows us to navigate stairs without needing to stare at our feet, and what keeps us from literally tripping over our own feet. Sometimes this system is not as sensitive as it should be, resulting in decreased body awareness. Children who are experiencing proprioceptive difficulties are often seen as “accident-prone.” They tend to fall a lot and have cuts, scrapes, and bruises constantly. 

2. They don’t like playground equipment, elevators, or amusement park rides.

If your child seems to move very cautiously when playing or prefers to stay still, they may be experiencing over-responsiveness in their vestibular system. This system detects movement and gravity, and is essential to maintaining balance. Children who have over-responsive vestibular systems are terrified of heights and are extremely sensitive to movement. They especially dislike spinning or sudden changes in head position. They may become carsick easily. They are unlikely to swing or climb on the playground without distress, and will avoid roller coasters.

3. Extreme difficulty with potty training.

Several sensory systems work together to successfully perform the task of using a toilet. First and foremost, the interoceptive system is responsible for the detection of internal body signals, including the need to use the bathroom. Sometimes this system is under-responsive, resulting in children who simply can’t tell when they need to “go.” In addition, the proprioceptive and vestibular systems must work together to help the child properly sit on the potty or toilet. If either of these systems is over- or under-responsive, the child may be scared to climb onto the toilet, feel unbalanced while sitting on it, or have a hard time “lining up” correctly. Other sensory sensitivities (smell, light, sound, touch) may also impact the child’s bathroom experience. Ultimately, it becomes easier for the child to continue using diapers than to overcome these challenges.

This sounds like my child - what's next?

Please remember that every child is unique, and that this list is not exhaustive. But, if your child is exhibiting any of the signs above or you have concerns about their sensory processing systems, contact us to schedule a free consultation. During your consultation, we will listen to your concerns and determine whether or not an evaluation for occupational therapy is warranted. Sensory processing difficulties create significant challenges for children, but we are here to help.

How are sensory processing difficulties treated?

Pediatric occupational therapists are uniquely trained in addressing sensory processing challenges. First, an evaluation is conducted to help determine if your child shows signs of over- or under-responsiveness in each sensory system. Each sensory system has its own brain circuit. It is common for children to be over-responsive in some senses and under-responsive in others, so evaluation is critical in designing an individualized treatment plan. Then the therapist, using their understanding of neuroscience and the sensory systems, carefully designs interventions. Treatment includes the use of specially designed equipment in targeted ways to help regulate the child’s senses. Treatment is play-based and engaging while incorporating specific sensory input in to meet the child’s needs. Families are invited to participate in the treatment process so that they may better understand their child’s sensory needs. Activities and tips to help the child at home and school are also provided. Ultimately, the goal of treatment is to help the child regulate and adapt to their environment, so that they may more fully participate in all activities of daily life.

For more information

For more on sensory processing difficulties, visit www.spdstar.org

If you are a pediatric health care provider of any discipline working in the Harrisburg, PA area, join our community of providers in our private Facebook group here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/hbgpediatricproviders/?source_id=120378919356530

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