How Sensory Processing Disorder affects children

Published on Tuesday, 26 March 2019
Last updated on Tuesday, 31 December 2019

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Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a neurological disorder that causes people to have difficulties processing information from the five senses: sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste, as well as from the sense of movement, and/or the positional sense. Children with SPD experience sensory information but may perceive it abnormally and this can make simple daily tasks a struggle and cause them to have difficulties learning and making friends.

It's essential that early childhood workers fully understand the disorder and how to manage children under their care who have it. So, let's have a close look at SPD, the signs and symptoms, plus some ways that carers can help children who have SPD.

Defining the condition

Sensory Processing Disorder is a complex neurological condition that impairs a child's functional skills. People with SPD misinterpret everyday sensory information, such as touch, sound and movement; and often feel overwhelmed by sensory inputs and may avoid or seek out certain activities.

A person with hypersensitive SPD will be over reactive and avoid some sensory experiences, while those with hyposensitive SPD will be under reactive and proactively seek out certain sensory activities. In both cases, there is a sensory processing dysfunction where the brain doesn’t process or properly organise what the child is experiencing which then creates discomfort, anxiety, meltdowns and more.

While SPD is talked about most in relation to children, there are adults that experience it although they most likely have developed coping mechanisms to assist them in daily life and the condition may not be as noticeable or problematic for them. It's also quite common for children with other diagnosed conditions such as autism or ADHD to experience sensory issues as well.

The signs and symptoms

It's quite common for children to commence or already be in child care with a professional diagnosis of Sensory Processing Disorder, in which case the parents will most likely notify you of their personal triggers and other aspects of their condition.

However, in some cases parents are yet to identify there is a medical condition that's causing their child's behaviour, or they may not even realise there is a problem. It's therefore a good idea to know the signs of SPD, so you can more effectively help the child and possibly suggest to the parents or carers that having an assessment with an expert could be a good idea.

There are many different symptoms of Sensory Processing Disorder and children with SPD may:

  • Be unable to sit still for an activity, in constant motion
  • Have trouble focusing or concentrating
  • Always be running, jumping or stomping instead of walking
  • Be clumsy, bump into things or frequently knock things over
  • React strongly to being touched or bumped
  • Avoid messy play and not like getting their hands dirty
  • Hate having their hair washed, brushed or cut
  • Be bothered by tags or socks and dislike wearing new clothing
  • Be distressed by loud or sudden sounds
  • Have poor fine motor skills such as writing and cutting and struggle with buttons and shoelaces
  • Have poor gross motor skills such as body coordination, riding a bike, running and swimming
  • Hesitate to play or climb on playground equipment
  • Have poor balance
  • Have difficulty tracking objects with their eyes
  • Avoid eye contact
  • Have a tendency to outbursts and tantrums
  • Have trouble following and remembering simple instructions
  • Be a fussy eater, who gags on food
  • React to smells not noticed by others

Supporting children with SPD

It's imperative that early childhood carers understand that Sensory Processing Disorder is not just children being tired or difficult. It's a neurological condition so it's very important to adopt ways to sufficiently support children living with the condition.

The good news is that this can be achieved quite easily with no additional training required, and no adverse effects to the other children under your care. Here are a few tips and activity ideas that educators can employ to support and encourage children with SPD:

  • Physical motions when switching activities - A smoother transition can be achieved if you give the child a physical sensory task such as holding a bucket of toys to take outside, carrying a pile of books into another room or getting them to help set up the table at lunch time.
  • Advanced notice to changes - Let children know in advance if there any routine changes or new environments to help reduce anxiety.
  • Weighted blankets - These can really help children with SPD calm down when it's quiet or nap time, as the gentle pressure is soothing and reassuring.
  • Include daily tactile sensory activities - Exposing children to different sensory experiences through touch can really help over time as they become familiar with them. For example, washing objects, playing with slime, sand or playdough, or helping with food preparation.
  • Offer varied food and drinks - Kids with SPD are often very fussy eaters so it's important to help them try new foods and drinks where possible, even if they only smell, lick or touch the item.
  • Play scent games - Have children identify different spices or foods from the kitchen by scent only or go for a walk and get them to smell different flowers and plants.
  • Play touch games - Likewise, do the same with a variety of interesting objects. You could place them in a bucket and have children pick one out with their eyes closed and then to guess what it is based on touch alone.
  • Get messy - Shaving cream mixed with food colouring on paper plates can then be used to make fake beards, a great way to get them used to mess and different sensations of touch.
  • Expand their abilities - Actively work on broadening their range of skill areas and interests.

Thanks to Psychology TodaySPD Australia and The Mighty for their information and tips for children with Sensory Processing Disorder.

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