There may be a deeper reason why your child avoids hugs or throws a tantrum when it's bath time. His fussiness over certain foods could just be naughtiness, or he may really struggle to tolerate it. Your child could have problems with Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD).
We all depend on the information we gather from our five sense systems. These sensory systems enable us to see, to hear, to smell, to taste, to feel and to be aware of the position and movements of our bodies.
These sense systems bombard us with information all the time, whether we are showering, walking or eating. The brain has to process all this information, so that we can make sense of the world around us and choose appropriate reactions to situations. This process is called sensory integration. This develops from birth as we are exposed to our surroundings, explore our environment and experience stimuli around us.
Sensory Processing dysfunction
But in some people there can be a traffic jam of information in the brain. A child is bombarded with information and certain parts of the brain don’t get the information they need and are therefore not able to interpret the information they have received. When this happens to a child, she shows behaviour that might seem inappropriate or out of proportion with the stimuli – such as a temper tantrum when having to put on socks or eat certain foodstuffs.
The brain’s ability to regulate the intensity of the stimuli to which it is exposed, is called modulation. This process regulates which stimuli we notice and which we ignore. For example, if there is a construction site next to your home, it will bother you at first. After a while, by means of modulation, you will be able to ignore these stimuli.
Even though we may have noisy work environments, traffic on the way home, we are still able to regulate ourselves and get back to the “calm-alert” state.
Most people have ways of dealing with their sensory issues. Biting of nails, twirling of hair or leaning on the table are all ways people use to regulate themselves.
Behaviour of SI kids
A child with Sensory Modulation problems cannot stay in this “calm-alert” state and interact with the environment. She then reacts by showing (broadly speaking) sensory-seeking or sensory-avoiding behaviour.
A sensory seeker craves intense stimulation. The craving for stimuli is always specific. If a child craves movement, she will run, climb and fidget. These children often appear hyperactive.
Sensory avoiders are so sensitive that they react to stimuli in fright, flight or fight. In flight, a child may sit in the corner and refuse to take part in a game, where fright makes a child “freeze” and stare ahead. In fight mode, a child may lash out and even hit or bite others. This avoidance is also often called sensory defensiveness.
One child can show both types of behaviour at different times.
These responses often cause social isolation as the child’s behaviour seems odd or naughty. Other children often avoid them, as they may be aggressive. But by avoiding uncomfortable activities and other people, they start to lag behind in social, emotional and physical development. This can in turn cause children to become depressed or withdraw even more.
Warning signs for SPD
If you recognise these warning signs, have your child assessed by an occupational therapist who is trained in sensory integration.
climbs everything and climbs high
pushes, licks and chews and crashes into objects
loves or hates high volumes of noise
loves or hates excessive sensory play such as playing in mud, soap and water
is very fussy about foods and textures
loves or hates cuddling or having people close by
over-reacts or under-reacts to pain
is irritable when on errands or outings with a parent
withdraws from people and stimuli
- (Christa Rohwer, occupational therapist, for Health24, January, 2013)
(Reviewed by Nita Lombard, occupational therapist specialising in SDP)
(Photo of unhappy toddler from Shutterstock)