Sensory Processing Disorder or Picky Eater?

What does it mean when someone – a teacher, therapist, school evaluator, or friend asks if your child has “Sensory Issues?”

Sensory integration, simply put, is a neurobiological process by which the brain interprets and integrates environmental stimuli (i.e. noise, touch, smell etc.). Some children, for various reasons, have a Sensory Processing Disorder in which particular sounds, foods, smells, kinds of touch, textures etc. are either too much or too little, so to speak. For instance, some children display as “Hypo-active” meaning, it is hard for that child to differentiate between different types of tactile input and so they become under-reactive. This is the child who needs to squeeze instead of just hug, or who trips and falls over classmates and doesn’t feel a thing. This is often referred to as needing more “input” whereas a “Hyper-sensitve” child will often avoid the tactile input at all costs – this reaction is referred to as “tactually defensive” behavior. In the case of picky eaters it is called “orally defensive” behavior.

Like adults, most kids have food they like and dislike. However, for the most part, by pre-school age, foods that are undesirable to a child are pretty few and many children will begin to branch out at this age trying new and different foods. The difference between a picky eater and a child who may have a Sensory Processing Disorder is the child who gags when tasting a certain texture, who will tantrum or become extremely irritable when offered certain foods or after eating previously avoided foods. One indicator is a child who will not eat hot food or cold food. This isn’t a food preference or dislike, it is usually a sensory issue. Children with sensory issues around food will often pick at food or sometimes request/need time-consuming or arduous rituals to be performed in the way of preparing or presenting food in order for it to be eaten. It’s one thing for a child to like the ends cut off of her PBJ sandwich, it’s another to need certain colors, textures, shapes, smells to be present in order to eat.

Clients ask me all the time if I think their child has a Sensory Disorder. I typically ask a lot of questions to suss out whether or not the behavior in question, usually observed by a teacher, is preventing the child from accessing learning in school or if the problem is causing unnecessary stress or disruption in the home for either the child or parent/s. If it is, perhaps it’s worth addressing. I also ask about other behaviors since it’s unusual for a child to have just one area of SPD. For instance, a parent may report their child doesn’t like cold food. Well, this may not be that big of a deal. Now, if the parent reports to me that the child is also sensitive to sounds or scared of certain noises (a big one is toilet flushing) I’d recommend and evaluation.

Children with SPD are bright, active, imaginative, often very verbal children. And with the right intervention, children with Sensory Processing Disorders do just fine. Identifying that there may be an issue is the first step to gaining access to services such as ABA, Sensory Integration Therapy, or Early Intervention. The earlier the better. And it’s important to remember, YOU live with your child (or likely, your child’s teacher is observing your child). If you have concerns or a teacher has concerns you may have to advocate for services from your pediatrician. I have personally experienced pediatricians who will say to a concerned parent, “Oh it’s nothing, the kid just doesn’t like ice cream cause it’s cold!” And then later on, after reports from teachers and caregivers in which it is documented that said child also doesn’t like loud noises, is often frightened by age-appropriate stories, and is ‘rambunctious,’ the same pediatrician ordered an Sensory Evaluation.

Tomorrow I’m going to post about some of the available therapies for Sensory Processing Disorders.

Tune in!


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