As parents, we are completely in tune with our children from what their coos mean, to what they are thinking and feeling when they can’t yet fully express themselves, and their quirks that make them unique. Most parents worry about their children — whether or not they are safe, healthy, and “normal.” Parents have bad habits of comparing their children to other families’ kids and monitoring developmental milestones, making excuses for when their child isn’t ahead of the curve. While eating habits, sleeping patterns, growth charts, and developmental milestones are important indicators of health, sensory perception and processing are just as important and often overlooked. Join us as we discuss some sensory red flags that could be indicative of a sensory processing disorder, commonly seen in autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Are you thinking “ Isn’t EVERY child a picky eater?” You aren’t wrong in that assessment. But, we also aren’t quite sure that children are any pickier that adults are, they just haven’t figured out what they do and don’t like yet. What we are talking about here are those kids who are extremely picky and have very rigid eating habits. Perhaps they will only entertain the thought of eating a food if it is the right temperature and texture, served on the right flatware. It is normal for toddlers to refuse to eat certain foods or attempt to eat one food that they like all the time. What should be of concern is when a child will only eat crunchy, bland foods or screams or withdraws if you introduce something new. If your child has to have everything just so and will not eat if there are multiple foods on the same dish, this is more extreme behavior than what is normal for even the pickiest eater and should be investigated further. Another closely related red flag of a sensory processing disorder is when a child gags at the sight, smell, or taste of foods or seems overly sensitive to the various aspects of a meal.
Avoids Movement or Won’t Be Still
Two opposite extremes here, we know. However, some children with vestibular disorders cannot tolerate movements that children without sensory processing disorders can. Vestibular disorders alter the way our brain interprets our position, balance, and spatial awareness. Your child, as young as infancy, may avoid being rocked, bounced, or patted. They may be belly sleepers and scream when you attempt to change their diaper and they have to lie flat on their backs. Toddlers may avoid swinging, twirling, spinning, jumping, and roughhousing, and may be resistant to activities that cause a lot of movement.
On the other hand, children with sensory processing disorders may move too much. They may appear to have too much energy, but more commonly, the movements are small — fidgeting, bouncing a leg, tapping the foot, moving their head and hands continuously, flapping fingers, rocking, or bouncy. Some children may seem to have an insatiable need to jump, climb, and move, and it may appear that they never seem to get dizzy. In these children, their vestibular senses are not processing the information.
Those who are sensitive to sensory input, whether they are slow to process it and get completely overwhelmed, or they seem impervious to it and consistently crave more stimulation often both present with difficulty transitioning between activities. If you find that your child does not adapt quickly or you have to cue them more than other children, they may be overwhelmed with lights and sounds and unsure of what is going to happen next. To a certain extent, all children seem to do better when they know what to anticipate, but those with sensory processing disorders have a much more difficult time moving from one activity to the next or deviating from a routine or schedule.
Prefers Tight Clothing or Spaces
Children who prefer tight clothing may be attempting to treat different sensory input challenges. For those children who prefer tight clothing like lycra or spandex, they may be attempting to enhance proprioceptive input and the tightness of the clothing is comforting without being restricting or confining. Similarly, children with sensory processing disorders may also attempt to squeeze in tight spaces, quite the opposite of claustrophobia. Again, the child is attempting to get proprioceptive input. The squeeze and pressure they feel from sitting or lying in a tight spot can be very calming.
Another reason children with sensory processing disorders may prefer tight clothing and/or tight spots is an attempt to treat overprocessing tactile sensations. The lycra or spandex helps create a constant and steady tactile sensation and the child may scream at the feeling of a tag, a seam, or stiff or rigid fabric.
W Sits and/or Walks On Toes
Toe-walking and sitting with the feet out to either side of the body may not seem alarming, but they are both glaring red flags of abnormal development and indicate a sensory processing concern. Toe-walking has been linked to several different issues, one being that the child does not enjoy the sensation of pressure on the foot and wants as little of their foot on the ground as possible. Some children also refuse to not wear shoes for the same reason. Other children toe-walk to increase the pressure on their ankles and lower legs — stimulating the proprioceptive input.
W-sitting refers to the way some children sit with their feet next to their hips on the outside of their bodies. Children with sensory processing issues or vestibular deficits have a tough time crossing the midline of their body, so find it uncomfortable to sit cross-legged or with their feet in front of them. W-sitting is a concern because it is associated with low muscle tone and can cause injury to the knees and hips that can cause long-term damage and necessitate physical therapy.
Avoids Being Messy
One of the hallmarks of a child with sensory processing disorders is the inability to be messy. This may refer to their belongings or their person. It is important to note that some children still struggle with personal hygiene, but they may lose it when their hands are dirty or they have dirt, snow, food, or craft supplies on their face, hands, or skin. This relates back to tactile sensory overload. Children with tactile sensitivities may prefer not to engage with play-dough, mud, finger paints, or other textured substances.
Becoming anxious or upset when their belongings are out of place, missing, disorganized, or dirty causes stress related to a deviation from what is expected. Rituals and routines are important to those with sensory processing disorders and ASD because it seems to provide some sense of control in a world that seems to be confusing, and some rigid placements of things are to feed the need to self-comfort by decreasing anxiety.
Avoids Bright or Flashing Lights, or Is Obsessed With Them
Light and sound sensitivity are a common theme with children on the spectrum and which way your child responds depends on whether or not they are over or under-stimulated. For those who are easily overstimulated and have a low tolerance for light and sound, they will avoid bright or flashing lights and seek quiet. They may cover their eyes or ears or squeeze their eyes shut and hum to themselves.
For children who don’t process sensory input well, they may actually seek out bright or flashing lights and loud sounds while seeming completely unphased by them. This is their attempt to obtain stimulating proprioceptive input. However, their inability to process the inputs normally leads to taking in more than needed and searching for more.
Not all children with ASD or sensory processing disorders present the same way. A child may only exhibit one of these red flags, and it may be so mild that reading this article made you think “oh, I didn’t know that was something to be concerned about.” Others, however, may possess all of these traits, and the warning signs should encourage you to seek assessment and intervention. To find support and treatment for your child’s sensory processing disorder, connect with us as SkyCare ABA today.