How to Spot Sensory Processing Disorder in Kids

Image via Katie Hurley

When my son was a toddler, he decided that all of his tags had to go. Tags were itchy and bothersome, and he had no time for itchy and bothersome. But even when I cut the tags out of shirts, he would come to me, pointing to the tiny little bit of tag left behind, tears of frustration spilling from his giant blue eyes. No tags, mama. No tags.

So, like any other mom of a tag-averse child, I went searching for brands with no tags. As it turns out, there were quite a few. Even brands like Disney jumped on the tagless-clothing train, which was good news for my little Lightning McQueen lover.

While a toddler who cries (make that screams) about tags and socks with lines and loud sirens on fire trucks might indicate a sensory processing disorder, it might not.

My daughter dislikes socks with “lines on the toes.” I'm always cold. My husband is always hot. I don't really care for the feeling of the ceiling fan whipping around in the kitchen unless I'm super hot (which isn't very often), but my husband likes it on 24/7. Do you see where I'm going with this? We all have sensitivities.

If it doesn't significantly interfere with the child's life, chances are it's more of a sensitivity. If, on the other hand, those big reactions (be it in the form of huge tantrums or extreme avoidance) interfere with daily living (it's difficult to get through the day if you can't stand the feeling of your shoes, after all), it's time to visit the pediatrician.

Read on for more on spotting sensory processing disorder.

What is Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)?

While many kids exhibit symptoms of sensitivity at times, it's important to remember that experts diagnose SPD when symptoms interfere with normal daily living.

SPD is a condition that occurs when the brain has difficulty processing the information that comes in through the senses. The symptoms of SPD exist on a spectrum, and children with SPD can be over- or under-sensitive to things in their environment.

Many parents describe children with SPD as formerly fussy babies. Kids with SPD tend to have difficulty coping with change and have prolonged meltdowns in response to things in their environment that affect the senses.

SPD is not a standalone disorder and is commonly seen in children with developmental disorders (like Autism) and ADHD. SPD can also be seen in gifted children.

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Symptoms of SPD

Some children with SPD will exhibit the following behaviors:

  • Lack of coordination
  • Bumps into things
  • Struggles to engage in conversation
  • Struggles to engage in play
  • Struggles to understand where their limbs are in space

Some common signs of hypersensitivity (or over-responsiveness):

  • Extreme reaction to loud or high-pitched noises that go unnoticed by others (flushing toilets, slamming doors, sirens)
  • Fear of unexpected touch (hugs, high fives, etc.)
  • Irritated by background noise
  • Fearful of crowds
  • Afraid of falling (doesn't like to be lifted up high)
  • Afraid of playground equipment (doesn't like swings or climbing to the top of the slide)

Some common signs of hyposensitivity (or under-responsiveness):


  • Constant need to touch people or things
  • High pain tolerance (might not recognize hot things as dangerous)
  • Trouble sitting still (likes to spin, jump, move body)
  • Doesn't understand own strength and might unintentionally harm others when playing
  • Doesn't understand personal space or physical boundaries
  • Can be a thrill seeker and makes dangerous choices at times

What to do

If you suspect that your child has SPD, the first step is to visit your pediatrician for an examination and a referral to an occupational therapist (OT). As tempting as it is to diagnose your child with information found online, it's best to have your child evaluated by a trained professional.

While there is comorbidity with developmental disorders and ADHD, not all kids with SPD have a developmental disorder or ADHD. Try to move one step at a time and focus on the individual needs of your child.

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Do you have a child that has been diagnosed with SPD?

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How to Spot Sensory Processing Disorder in Kids

Katie Hurley, LCSW is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and writer in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" and "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World". She earned her BA in Psychology and Women's Studies from Boston College and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. She divides her time between her family, her private practice and her writing. Passionate about he ... More

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