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Child Development

Does My Child Have a Sensory Disorder? How to Know

December 26, 2022
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    Sensory processing issues are not uncommon, especially for children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and related conditions, like Autism Spectrum Disorders. Sensory disorders may not lead to an official diagnosis, but they can affect anyone and may make everyday life harder. So, how do you know if your child has a sensory disorder? What can parents do about disorders like sensory processing disorder (SPD) in children?

    In this article, we'll discuss concerns that fall under sensory processing disorder, possible causes of sensory processing issues, and signs of sensory disorders to look out for in kids. Then, we'll talk about the difference between difficulties caused by sensory issues vs. typical childhood emotions and what helps children with sensory differences.

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    What's a Sensory Disorder?

    Sensory processing disorder encompasses a variety of sensory issues that lead to atypical reactions to sensory input. A sensory disorder is marked by over or under-reactivity to sensory input. Many people experience both. Over-reactivity to sensory input is what leads to sensory overload. While sensory processing disorder (SPD) is not an official disorder, it is well known and recognized as a neurological condition in the medical community.

    Trouble processing sensory information can affect daily life activities. Alongside sensory issues, many children with sensory issues display other symptoms, such as poor balance or fine motor skills. 

    There are three main types or categories of sensory processing disorder. Categories of sensory processing disorder include:

    • Sensory modulation disorder
    • Sensory-based motor disorder
    • Sensory discrimination disorder

    Rarely a stand-alone disorder, sensory processing disorder tends to pair with another condition, like Autism Spectrum Disorder. As for the cause of sensory processing issues, what do we know?

    Causes Of Sensory Processing Issues

    Sensory issues are very real and aren't something a child can control. Research reveals visible differences in a child's brain with sensory issues vs. a child's brain without sensory issues. When compared to typically developing children, researchers have found that kids with sensory processing disorder have altered pathways for brain connectivity. These altered pathways predict differences in the way a child reacts to sensory information.

    The exact cause of sensory disorders is unknown. However, some risk factors increase the likelihood of a child having sensory processing disorder.

    Risk Factors For Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)

    While sensory processing disorder itself is not an official disorder, sensory processing issues are frequently linked to a separate disorder of some kind. Other factors can play a role, too. Here's what the research says on risk factors for sensory issues.

    Autism Spectrum Disorders

    Sensory processing issues are more prevalent in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). In fact, over 90% of children with Autism Spectrum Disorders display sensory processing issues.

    Other Disorders

    Like with Autism Spectrum Disorder, children who have ADHD are more likely to have sensory processing disorder. There is also a connection between sensory processing disorder in childhood and anxiety disorders.


    Though the neurological disorder is linked to other conditions, it appears that there’s a genetic factor in some instances when it comes to sensory processing difficulties. Parents who experience symptoms of sensory processing disorder may be more likely to have a child who experiences sensory issues.

    How can I tell if my child has sensory issues?

    To understand sensory processing disorders, you must first understand sensory information. Sensory information refers to anything you can touch, taste, hear, smell, or see. Some people with sensory issues are sensitive to just one sense, whereas others face challenges with multiple senses. So, while one child might be sensitive primarily to food textures and tastes alone, other kids could react intensely to more than one type of sensory stimuli.

    Many children with sensory processing issues will experience both over and under-reactivity, meaning they may experience both sensory-seeking behaviors and sensory overload or distress caused by sensory information. Over-reactivity to sensory stimulation is called sensory hypersensitivity, whereas under-reactivity (or sensory-seeking behavior) is called sensory hyposensitivity.

    Sensory hypersensitivity

    Signs of sensory hypersensitivity in children include:

    • Higher sensitivity to clothing texture or fabrics than other children
    • Distress as a result of certain food textures and tastes
    • Intense reactions to loud noises
    • Extreme sensitivity to scents
    • Difficulty with body awareness and balance
    • Behavior problems
    • Deficits in fine motor skills
    • Poor balance

    Discomfort caused by sensory input can be excruciating for a hypersensitive child. Some kids may even struggle to play on some pieces of playground equipment or engage in other experiences most kids like.

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    Sensory hyposensitivity

    Signs of sensory hyposensitivity in children include:

    • Seeking sensory stimulation through visuals (e.g., electronic devices and bright lights)
    • Seeking sensory stimulation through other sensory experiences, like loud music
    • Thrill-seeking behavior (such as running, jumping, climbing, or spinning)
    • Trouble recognizing personal space
    • Chewing on things they shouldn't (like the child's clothing or hands)
    • Lack of body awareness (the child may not notice that they're bleeding, have a runny nose, etc.)
    • Being in constant motion or trouble sitting still
    • Sleep problems

    Sensory issues can make it harder for a child to stay focused, which can worsen or mirror ADHD symptoms in some instances. Distress and differences in normal functioning typically set kids with sensory processing disorder apart from children without the condition.

    Trouble processing sensory input in either direction can impact a child's behavior. Some parents may wonder how to tell the difference between sensory disorders and typical emotions in kids.

    Issues With Sensory Input Vs. Typical Emotions In Children

    Common signs of sensory processing disorder or sensory issues often present in early childhood. A child's behavior will usually indicate sensory issues to some degree. Looking at when, where, and how signs of sensory processing disorder show up can be beneficial in determining whether sensory processing issues are the culprit of a child's behavior.

    For example, you might notice that a child with sensory processing disorder covers their ears when loud noises occur (including loud noises that don't bother other children), complains or cries over bright lights or specific foods, and so on. Once sensory issues are tended to (when a child is in a comfortable environment with adequate personal space), they may wind down over time and start to feel calmer. If you notice that this is a consistent pattern for your child, it's likely that issues with sensory input or sensory information are what's going on.

    At times, sensory needs can look like behavior problems. Even for kids who don't usually have notable behavior problems, sensory sensitivity can mean that a child faces intense discomfort, resulting in a meltdown, outburst, or another show of distress.

    If your child experiences symptoms of sensory processing disorder, there are modes of support that can help.

    Seeking Help For Sensory Disorders

    Research shows that occupational therapy can help children with sensory issues or disorders. A small study on occupational therapy using a sensory integration approach (OT-SI) found that kids who worked with an occupational therapist experienced improvements in electrodermal reactivity and better scores on the Short Sensory Profile and Child Behavior Checklist.

    This is just one of many pieces of research that confirms the role of occupational therapists for kids with sensory processing difficulties. Many studies show that occupational therapists who use sensory integration therapy see success in pediatric clients.

    Before your child starts sensory integration therapy, an occupational therapist will provide a thorough evaluation to determine unique treatment needs. Occupational therapists may use tools for kids with sensory needs, such as weighted vests and sensory toys, during sessions.

    If you're seeking occupational therapy for a child with sensory issues, look for an occupational therapist with special training in sensory integration therapy. An occupational therapist who uses sensory integration therapy will have extensive knowledge of sensory issues and how to properly address sensory processing disorder. Occupational therapy can also help with gross motor skills and motor control issues in addition to other concerns that might pair with sensory issues.

    If a child experiences signs of sensory processing disorder alongside symptoms of another condition, like ADHD, anxiety, or Autism Spectrum Disorders, receiving treatment post-diagnosis can be beneficial. That way, a child can access coping skills they need for sensory issues and other symptoms that affect their life.

    Family physicians can usually provide a referral to an occupational therapist or another relevant professional.

    What To Do When A Child Is Overstimulated

    Both adults and kids can experience sensory processing issues. For children, sensory processing disorder can be more challenging to deal with because they do not yet have the necessary coping skills to manage sensory overload, lack of stimulation, and other challenges.

    Even with help for sensory processing disorder, sensory issues don't generally go away. When a child is exposed to uncomfortable sensory input or is otherwise affected by their sensory issues, it is important to help them get comfortable again.

    Change the sensory input

    If a child experiences sensory overload as a result of bright lights or other sensory input, like loud noises, remove them from the environment and get them to a comfortable, quiet space.

    Use items to accommodate sensory preferences

    Many kids with sensory issues have a positive experience with sensory toys and tools such as sensory brushes, weighted blankets, and headphones. Though occupational therapists frequently use these tools, they are also available online or in-store for anyone to purchase.

    Teach the child to communicate sensory needs

    Children with developmental delays may have a harder time communicating sensory needs. Even if a child with sensory issues can't communicate verbally, they may be able to do so in another way.

    When children learn how to communicate and cope with signs of sensory processing disorder, symptoms often become more manageable.


    Anyone can experience sensory processing problems. However, sensory issues are more common in children with another separate disorder, like ADHD or Autism Spectrum Disorder. 

    Certain symptoms can help parents identify sensory processing disorder (SPD) in children, such as sensitivity to sensory information such as bright lights, loud noises, and food textures. In some kids, you may notice signs of sensory processing disorder in the form of sensory seeking behavior.

    Differences in fine motor skills and balance are also seen in many children with SPD. Even though there is no official diagnosis for sensory processing disorder, it can have a profound impact on a person's life. Some kids experience behavior issues as a result of sensory processing issues.

    Many children with sensory issues benefit from working with an occupational therapist. Learning to better navigate sensory sensitivity through modes of support like sensory integration therapy is possible. Having the right coping skills and learning to meet sensory needs can help kids with sensory processing issues reduce distress and better engage in normal life activities.


    Sarah Schulze MSN, APRN, CPNP

    Sarah is a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner with a specialty certification in pediatric mental health. She works at a clinic in Champaign Illinois, providing care to children and adolescents with mental health disorders. She obtained her bachelor's in nursing from Indiana State University in 2011 and completed her master's in nursing from University of Illinois at Chicago in 2014. She is passionate about helping children create a solid foundation on which they can grow into healthy adults.


    Sarah Schulze MSN, APRN, CPNP

    Sarah is a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner with a specialty certification in pediatric mental health. She works at a clinic in Champaign Illinois, providing care to children and adolescents with mental health disorders. She obtained her bachelor's in nursing from Indiana State University in 2011 and completed her master's in nursing from University of Illinois at Chicago in 2014. She is passionate about helping children create a solid foundation on which they can grow into healthy adults.