How To Identify Sensory Processing Disorder in Toddlers: A Holistic Pediatric Perspective
Your toddler’s brain processes seven (not five!) senses. A lot of parents mistake their toddler’s sensory processing issues with behavioral choices. You might blame yourself or feel guilty about how frustrated you feel. You may think that your parenting style (too strict or not strict-enough) is to blame. But with toddlers and young children who have Sensory Processing Disorder, their behavior is not a choice. It’s a response to a neurological difference in perceiving and interpreting the world around them.
You may have heard that there are different “types” when it comes to sensory processing disorders. But regardless of type, what most (not all!) toddlers with sensory processing issues have in common are the major meltdowns. This may have been the undeniable difference between your child and their peers that caused you to search for more information. These are not your typical tantrums, but rather fits that are frequent, prolonged and disturbing to both parents and the kid themselves. They occur in response to seemingly small experiences or you may not know what triggered them at all. You may wonder what you’re doing wrong as a parent, when in fact your toddler might be showing early signs of sensory processing disorder. From a holistic pediatric perspective, they need nervous system support, not punishment or stricter parenting.
Hyposensitive Sensory Processing Disorder
You may have found yourself thinking, “Why is my toddler so rough, insensitive, or violent? Their behavior is out of control, I must be doing something wrong.” The toddler who is frequently crashing into things or people, has a high pain threshold, speaks loudly, and is physically impulsive is a hyposensitive type. Their behavior isn’t a sign of “bad choices” or being “insensitive”, but rather a neurological hyposensitivity to stimuli in their environment. They are experiencing the same environment you are, but in a completely different way.
For example (this assumes that your brain is neurotypical, and if this isn’t the case, you may see yourself in some of these examples):
- You feel a punch and they feel a tap.
- You are whispering and they are speaking loudly.
- You intuit danger or risk and they run right toward it, consistently.
- When you wrestle or engage in physical play with your kid, you frequently end up getting punched, hit hard, or bitten.
- Your toddler crashes into things or people seemingly for fun.
- Your toddler likes deep pressure or firm touch and squirms when touch is light.
- Your toddler is the one who falls at the playground and as other parents gasp you know they’re going to get right back up without crying or skipping a beat.
- Your toddler has trouble hearing you or following instructions when there are other sounds or auditory stimuli in the environment.
Without proper support for their nervous systems, when these toddlers get older, they can be labeled by schools and other caregivers as violent, misbehaved, or reckless. They may hurt their peers, engage in risky physical play, or simply not be able to participate in a typical public kindergarten classroom. This is not a condemnation of these kids, but rather a sad reality in which most educators (even the most well-meaning and experienced) neither understand sensory processing needs nor receive support from their school administrations to serve kids with sensory processing issues. So it’s on the parents to find outside support so their child can thrive instead of existing in a cycle of managing their anxiety, confusion, and discomfort of living with a sensory processing difference. If this sounds familiar, book your 25 minute consult to see how holistic pediatric care can support your child to self-regulate and better integrate their sensory world.
Hypersensitive Sensory Processing Disorder
Your child might be more of a hypersensitive type. (Note: “Hypersensitive” is a term utilized by clinicians to describe this neurological type, it is not a value judgment.) You’ve become frustrated with their fearful, timid, and withdrawn demeanor punctuated by major meltdowns. They resist newness, they appear hypervigilant. This is the toddler who may have difficulty with fine motor skills, refuses to ride a bike, and may have a very low pain tolerance. They may scream or cry in response to what neurotypical people might perceive as a minor fall or bump. These toddlers are described by parents and caregivers who don’t understand sensory processing issues as “dramatic, overly-sensitive, or manipulative.” Their feelings (and physical discomfort) frequently get dismissed or met with impatience.
Your toddler might be displaying early signs of hypersensitive sensory processing issues if they:
- Scream-out in pain/fear when it’s time to wash their face or hair.
- Freeze, run-away, or hide in environments like birthday parties, grocery stores, or the community pool.
- React negatively and consistently to seams in socks or clothes and/or shirt tags.
- Can't stand getting their hands dirty outside, with crafts, cooking, or eating.
- Hair-brushing or braiding is impossible
- Find climbing, running, or navigating a playground challenging. They fall, move extremely slowly and carefully, or refuse to participate altogether.
- Always gag at similarly textured foods.
- Resist learning new physical skills like swimming, bike riding, ice skating, etc.
- Consistently have big crying or screaming responses to falls, bumps, or bruises.
- Struggle to hold and/or use a pencil, marker, or crayon.
Later in school environments these children tend to get less negative labeling by schoolteachers and staff, and instead struggle socially. They might excel at school in some areas, but struggle with writing, drawing, and gym class. They tend to be shy and experience an acute level of anxiety, fear, and even numbness in situations that neurotypical kids navigate with relative ease. These kids’ sensory processing and mental health needs are easier to overlook. Frankly, because they are not as disruptive to the functioning of a classroom. But when they get home, the rigidity, meltdowns, and anxiety can manifest strongly. Using holistic pediatric strategies, these hyposensitive kiddos can feel more at ease, relaxed, and able to create connections with their peers. Book a 25 minute consult to explore your care options.
Is Sensory Processing Disorder A Recognized Diagnosis?
Though research on this topic began in the 1970s, the DSM still does not recognize “Sensory Processing Disorder''. Therefore, most adjunct therapies are not covered by insurance. This may change if your toddler later receives an ADHD or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) diagnosis. (Note: Sensory processing issues are an inherent part of ADHD and ASD and have a wide variety of severity and manifestations.) Rather than thinking about it as a “neat” diagnosis, think of Sensory Processing Disorder as more of an umbrella term for a collection of brain-level perceptions and interpretations of the seven senses that are different from neurotypical people.
Most toddlers will not receive early intervention for their sensory processing needs because of the lack of healthcare professionals proficient in sensory processing. So it’s really up to parents like you to educate yourselves on the signs and seek support from competent practitioners.
In summary, toddlers with Sensory Processing Disorder have brains that receive and interpret these senses differently:
- Their sense of their own body in space (vestibular)
- Internal body knowing (proprioception or interoception)
They might feel sensations more intensely or significantly less intensely than other kids their age. Being in loud, indoor spaces with fluorescent lights creates discomfort or overwhelm. New foods are a hard “no”, or maybe shirt tags can end in meltdowns. It’s confusing at this early stage of your child’s life to know what to do to support your child. What is a tantrum that is age appropriate and what is a tantrum triggered by sensory processing disorder-related overload? Having competent holistic pediatric care to support your toddler with sensory processing challenges is key to short-term easing of symptoms and their long-term thriving.