When Your Child Has Sensory Processing Disorder

By Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
April 05, 2023
When Your Child Has Sensory Processing Disorder

If your child has sensory processing disorder, the tag on his shirt feels like a crawling spider. Here's what to do when your child has trouble with sensory input.

Let’s say one night your 4-year-old son protests that his toothpaste is “too spicy.” Another night he complains that the bristles on his toothbrush are “too sharp.” He suddenly wails that the music in the car is “blasting his ears,” even though it’s no louder than usual. He hollers if tickled, breaks pencils because he pushes too hard, and gets car sick on short drives. 

Many children — up to 15 percent of children without other developmental problems, according to one study — find ordinary sounds and tactile sensations (sensory input) unpleasant. In most toddlers, the discomfort goes away by the school years. But in some, the sensory input discomfort persists and becomes troublesome. These children are often also anxious and may be clumsy in unexpected ways, perhaps having trouble walking up stairs. In some cases, they lack perception in one or more senses. 


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Sensory processing disorder, or sensory integration disorder

As a parent, you may have heard the terms sensory processing disorder (SPD) and sensory integration disorder, used interchangeably. Our brains do a whole lot of work we take for granted absorbing sensory data; one theory has it that, in some children, systems at the top of the chain have gone awry.

There’s some evidence from twin studies that sensory processing disorder has a genetic basis and is a stand-alone problem. One small study zeroed in on evidence from brain scans of a difference in 8 to 11-year-old boys considered to suffer from SPD. SPD, however, is not a diagnosis recognized by insurers, or even some doctors. 

Don’t get bogged down in controversies over words; focus on getting any help your child needs. If you think your child’s symptoms are causing difficulties, keep a journal for a week or two, looking for clumsiness, oversensitivity (or lack of response), agitation, or frustration doing tasks that should be easy. Then bring your list of concerns to your child’s pediatrician. 

Help for sensory processing disorder

The pediatrician may tell you not to worry, and he or she could be correct. The answer may be to wait to see if the problems persist. If you remain concerned, ask for referrals to a developmental specialist — to rule out (or diagnose) autism or attention problems — and an occupational therapist (OT). 

An OT will evaluate the sensory input problems and give you tools to address them. Make sure you keep your journal: You’ll be expected to complete a detailed questionnaire. Children over the age of 7 or so can help with the answers, and some OTs will give you forms for family, teachers, and babysitters. The OT will follow up on all the data, addressing questions directly to your child.

The next step is the testing room, where the OT will observe and score your child as he or she performs a range of tasks and responds to sensory prompts. You should end up with an explanation of which, if any, sensory systems are causing problems, and when and why. The result will be a treatment plan that includes goals. Insurers generally cover treatment that falls under the appropriate medical codes your healthcare provider assigns to a diagnosis. 

Read “The Out-of-Sync Child,” by preschool teacher Carol Stock Kranowitz, and other books about sensory integration disorder.

If there’s family friction or trouble at school, consider calling a psychotherapist or psychiatrist. The OT may give you a “sensory diet” for your child to pursue at home, either to stimulate certain senses or to tame unpleasant sensations and focus kids who are flying off the walls.


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April 05, 2023

Reviewed By:  

Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA