I Knew My Child's Tantrums Weren't 'Normal' -- They Were Sensory Processing Disorder

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Originally Published: 
Scary Mommy and Janko Ferlič/specialdaddy/Unsplash

“Boys will be boys,” my friend shrugged after I intervened when one of my kids was having yet another epic tantrum while we played together at our local park. But I knew the truth. What my child was doing wasn’t the norm, boy or otherwise.

It wasn’t just the tantrums that had me concerned. The seemingly uncontrollable need to touch anything textured, purposefully flopping onto the floor, and freaking out over the noise of a restroom hand dryer or automatic flushing toilet. My child would beg, “Squeeze me tight!” often knocking me over by taking a running-jump into a hug. We couldn’t go anywhere in public without an epic meltdown resulting in me carrying my kiddo football-style out the door. Haircuts were absolute hell.

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I did what any mama bear does, and I took my observations to the internet, plugging in various symptoms. I had to get to the bottom of what was going on. I had a light bulb moment when my search rendered a possible answer — Sensory Processing Disorder, or SPD for short.

Many parents struggle with their kids throwing tantrums during the toddler years. Two- and three-year-old kids do not care where they are or what’s going on. Whatever your plans are, consider them disrupted by a flailing, screaming tot.

But what about when the child is four or five or even older? What if a child will collapse on the floor sobbing when you ask her to put on a pair of jeans? Or what if your child cannot walk down a store aisle without touching every single cereal box that’s carefully lined up on the shelves? Is it possible that a child deemed a picky eater actually has SPD?

Sensory processing disorder has endless variations.

According to the STAR Institute, Sensory Processing Disorder is when a person “finds it difficult to process and act upon information received through the senses, which creates challenges in performing countless everyday tasks.” Remember, there are five senses—touch, taste, smell, sight, and sound.

SPD manifests as seeking, avoiding, or seeking-avoiding. A seeker craves sensory input, while an avoider will shy away from sensory input. A seeker-avoider may seek some sensory input while avoiding others. A child with SPD can be impacted by a single sense, such as taste, or multiple senses, such as sound, touch, and smell. There are endless possible combinations.

There are a number of possible factors to SPD.

There is no known single cause of SPD, though there are a number of possible factors. The STAR Institute suggests that there could be both genetic and environmental causes. They elaborate that low birth weight, prematurity, and poor prenatal care are also possible contributors. Children who were adopted may be more likely to have SPD.

It’s easy for parents to blame themselves for their children’s special needs, but the reality is that though we don’t know—and may never know—exactly why some kids have SPD. The good news? There are ways to help manage the disorder.

A SPD diagnosis can be difficult since it’s often misunderstood.

I’m a firm believer that a diagnosis is a gift, because it’s a catalyst for change and hope. Unfortunately, I discovered through our own diagnosis process that SPD is not readily understood. Many medical professionals have little-to-no training on sensory issues. The other problem? SPD is not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM), the guidebook used by clinicians, despite occupational therapists who have advocated for the identifying and treatment SPD.

A child psychiatrist, psychologist, developmental pediatrician, or neurologist is a good place to start, though many patients need a referral from the pediatrician in order to initiate the evaluation process. We saw three doctors before our child was believed to have true SPD and additionally, was diagnosed with ADHD. Children with SPD can have a co-existing condition such as autism, anxiety, or ADHD.

My advice is to keep track of your child’s symptoms, including lot of details such as the time of day and the apparent trigger. What seems to help? What seems to cause sensory meltdowns? If your child’s babysitter or teacher has any concerns, be sure to note those as well. Take your log to your child’s appointment.

There’s no cure, but there are ways to manage sensory processing disorder.

Depending on the severity of your child’s SPD and their triggers, you can begin to find ways to manage the disorder. For example, a child who avoids loud noises might carry noise-cancelling headphones with them to use while shopping at the store or dining in a restaurant. A child who chews on objects to meet their oral sensory needs might benefit from what’s called a chewy necklace. Target offers affordable sensory-friendly clothing lines, and many online stores exist that are solely dedicated to selling sensory tools such as hanging nests and swings, weighted vests and blankets, and textured toys.

How can you figure out what your child with sensory issues needs? An occupational therapist can help you set up a Sensory Diet. Despite its name, a Sensory Diet isn’t food-related. Rather, it’s a plan that includes a “series of physical activities and accommodations tailored to give each child the sensory input she needs.” The goal is to get the child to a state of calmness and regulation so they can participate in everyday life.

Three helpful books on SPD include The Out-of-Sync Child: Recognizing and Coping with Sensory Processing Disorder, Sensational Kids: Hope and Help for Children with Sensory Processing Disorder, and Raising a Sensory Smart Child: The Definitive Handbooks for Helping Your Child with Sensory Processing Issues.

There’s no cure for SPD, but it can be navigated with proper tools and go-to techniques. I have found in our child’s case that maturity helps. The child learns to advocate for their own needs, especially as their comprehension and verbal skills improve.

Children with SPD are not their diagnosis.

Helping your child manage their Sensory Processing Disorder comes down to a lot of patience, trial-and-error, and remembering that SPD isn’t something the child can be disciplined or talked out of. Many parents, myself included, have embraced our children’s sensory struggles.

Ultimately, we understand that our children aren’t their diagnosis. And we have the privilege of fighting alongside our child instead of against our child.

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