by Dr. Stephanie Drummond, OTD, OTR/L, SWC who shares 10 tips for catching sensory processing disorder early from her expertise in supporting families through Occupational Therapy. Connect with her on Instagram.

Our world is full of sensory information and input coming into all systems at all times. This includes

  • visual (eyes),
  • tactile (touch),
  • auditory (hearing),
  • gustatory (taste),
  • olfactory (smelling),
  • vestibular (sensation of where you are in space),
  • proprioceptive (sensation from your muscles and joints telling you where your body is in relation to itself and others),
  • interoceptive (internal senses of hunger, pain, bowel/bladder)

Many adults have difficulty processing all of this input on a daily basis! Oftentimes we expect our children to handle all of this input, too. Sometimes, children are not able to process this information as expected for a variety of reasons.

There are clues that can help you figure out if your child may be having difficulty processing sensory information. Research shows that those who have underlying sensory processing difficulties without receiving any intervention can present with anxiety and potential mental health challenges, as well as motor delays. They often have a poor sense of self-confidence, as they are not able to rely on the messages their bodies are sending them. My goal is to educate as many families as possible on what this looks like. Then they can be advocates for their children. They can help kids to grow to be independent, self-confident individuals who flourish in our sensory-filled world!

Top 10 signs your child may have difficulty processing sensory information

Recurrent ear infections

The vestibular system is housed within the inner ear. Multiple or recurrent ear infections and inflammation within this area can greatly affect your child’s ability to process vestibular input.

Poor sleep

Oftentimes, children who are not able to shut off all of the sensory input that is bombarding them on a daily basis are in a constant state of “fight or flight.” Their sympathetic nervous system is in overdrive. They cannot turn it off to go to sleep. It often takes hours for parents to get their child to wind down and transition to sleep. Some are so exhausted from their day that they crash at the end of the day, but wake up throughout the night. As they come down from that shutdown state and transition to what we call a high level of arousal, they again enter that sympathetic state. They may be unable to go back to sleep.

Poor self-regulation

This constant state of “fight or flight” can present in many different ways. Self-regulation is a higher-level skill, processed in the prefrontal cortex. Children with self-regulation challenges tend to go into a fight, flight, or freeze response. Some enter a shutdown state and appear quiet and withdrawn. They may be too overwhelmed to engage with others outside of their safe zone.

Others are bouncing off the walls and can’t sit still. Preschool or elementary school teachers expect them to sit for circle time or at their desk. It is nearly impossible for them to do so without seeking input from others next to them. This could look like pushing, bumping into, or pulling others and objects. Some children can hold it together all day at school or daycare but lose it as soon as they get home. Once in their safe space with mom and dad, they can’t regulate anymore and cry or act out.

Poor posture

Your child may slump or look like they are leaning back in their highchair or regular chair. They may W-sit (sitting between their legs with both feet pointed behind them so that their legs make a “W”). They may tire easily with normal daily activities. All of these are signs of poor proximal stability or core strength and low tone. This may be a sign of an underlying sensory processing challenges. This impacts fine motor, gross motor, ocular motor, and oral motor development.

Difficulty with praxis

Praxis is the ability to form a goal or idea, plan a sequence of actions, and then perform a new motor task. If you ask your child to complete a multi-step task (i.e. “go upstairs, get your socks and shoes, then come downstairs and put them on so we can go to school”), they may get stuck on the first step. You may lose them upstairs because they either forgot what they were doing, do not know how to motorically complete the task, or got distracted halfway through. Praxis is in everything that we do! If a child has difficulty with this skill, it can be very difficult to make it through the day without challenges.

Difficulty with breastfeeding or bottle-feeding

Infants who have been cleared from oral motor obstructions for feeding (i.e. tongue, lip, or buccal ties, cleft lip or palate, etc.) yet still have difficulties with breastfeeding and/or bottle-feeding may have an underlying sensory processing challenge. It is imperative to have their feeding skills assessed by a provider who has training and expertise with both the oral motor and sensory mechanisms of feeding to determine whether there is an underlying sensory challenge impacting their early feeding abilities.

Read Stephanie Cahill’s tips for nourishing your highly sensory child.

Skipped or minimal crawling

I see so many children on a daily basis who either skipped crawling altogether or only crawled for a minimal amount of time. Crawling is a major motor milestone that should not be skipped. Not crawling, or crawling for less than four months could be a red flag of an underlying sensory processing challenge. Crawling is vital for brain and body development, and builds a foundation for lifelong skill development.

Movement seeker or avoider

Does your child appear very active, or have a difficult time sitting still or playing quietly? Does your child only like to play quietly and appear fearful of swings, slides, being upside-down, or rough-and-tumble play with others? This may be a sign of an underlying vestibular difficulty that should be evaluated.

Difficulty transitioning to solid foods

If your child is choking, gagging, or retching with the transition to solid foods, or is screaming and refusing certain food groups or categories, or simply will not touch the foods you present to them, they may be presenting with early signs of sensory processing difficulties. Feeding involves all of our sensory systems, and is often an important indicator of underlying sensory processing challenges.

Behavioral challenges

If you are noticing regular meltdowns, that going to music class or gymnastics class sets your child off, or loud noises upset your child, I would consult with an OT. Innately, children do not want to constantly defy you or do the opposite of what you would like them to. Children want to please their parents and please others. They rarely act out just to get a rise out of you. Behavior is their way of expressing that something doesn’t feel right. Their actions are their way of communicating to you when they are not able to verbally express it to you.

Catching Sensory Processing Disorder early

My goal is to spread the word on what Sensory Processing Disorder is and what signs you can look for to catch it early. The earlier we can treat it, the more quickly we can change the way the brain processes this information. We work together with parents to support their children. Together we can overcome any obstacles in the road of their development. We can set children on their way to a fun-filled and exciting life in which they can rely on their bodies and not be overwhelmed by the sensory information around them.

Stephanie Drummond Catching Sensory Processing Disorder EarlyDr. Stephanie Drummond is a pediatric occupational therapist with over twenty years of education, training, and experience within the field of pediatric occupational therapy. Dr. Drummond graduated Magna Cum Laude with her Bachelors, Masters, and Doctorate of Occupational Therapy from the University of Southern California. Dr. Drummond completed intensive sensory integration training through the University of Southern California, and managed the University of Southern California’s Lifestyle Redesign Program and the Faculty Practice. She has received certification to administer the Sensory Integration and Praxis Test (SIPT), Integrative Listening System, Interactive Metronome, Therapeutic Listening, and The Listening Program.

Dr. Drummond has completed courses in Handwriting Without Tears, First Strokes, Pediatric Feeding, Brain Gym, Floor Time, Neuro-Developmental Treatment (NDT), and the Alert Program. She has lectured and given courses on sensory integration and handwriting readiness and intervention, and has presented to the Occupational Therapy Association of California. She has extensive training with feeding difficulties and sensory based feeding disorders, and worked at Toomey & Associates feeding clinic located at the STAR Center in Denver, CO. Dr. Drummond holds the CBOT Advanced Practice Certification in Swallowing Assessment, Evaluation and Intervention.