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Sensory processing disorder symptoms and signs, what every mom should know. 

Sensory Processing Disorder Checklist SPD in toddlers and children with learning disabilities

High spirited. Energetic. Strong willed.
My son has been called all these things, and I myself often refer to him using those words. Usually when I’m explaining why he’s running circles around the grocery store or why we can’t stay for the birthday party. Or when I’m apologizing because he gets excited at the playground and pushes another child. 

He’s a boy. He’ll grow out of it. He’s just having too much fun
Those are all things people tell me,  things that honestly have brought me comfort when my mind has started to wonder if this truly is “normal”, if my son is normal. If he’s going to outgrow these things and be able to function and thrive when we start school. Is he going to be okay?

It’s hard to hear that your child may have any kind of disorder, especially in the early stages when it’s difficult to sort out whether a problematic behavior or issue is happening too often or if it’s just a phase. Then there’s the confusion. But my child is so bright and funny, so curious about everything and he speaks so well, better than most of the children we know at his age. 

When it was first suggested to me my initial thinking was completely paradoxical. No way my kid has SPD (even though I still didn’t completely understand what SPD is) followed by that uncomfortable poke in the side that said, maybe this would explain things. Things I find myself repeating all day long. “Why can’t you just sit still?” “Why did you do that… again?” “Why are you yelling?” “Why are you smacking yourself?”

I started reading up on the signs and symptoms of sensory processing disorder to learn about what it looks like in children, toddlers especially. While we are still very new to this idea, there are a few warning signs that I immediately connected with. And some that scare me to death.

Here are some of the thoughts that go through the mind of a mom just learning about this disorder:

What is Sensory Processing Disorder?

  • Sensory processing disorder (also known as sensory integration dysfunction) is a condition where the brain has trouble receiving signals and responding appropriately. The neurological system becomes overwhelmed by sensory information and has trouble interpreting signals and returning a behavioral response. 
  • SPD can affect only one sense or multiple senses.  A person may be hypersensitive, over-responding to light, sound, taste, even the slightest sensation of being touched or clothing brushing against their skin. Others are hyposensitive, showing little or no reaction to extreme sensations, even intense pain or exposure to extreme hot or cold. 

Ok, so my son definitely seems to be frequently overwhelmed by his feelings and often responds by erupting with anger or having a meltdown. But isn’t that normal for toddlers? Aren’t there Twitter accounts and funny Facebook pages on this age, ie #reasonsmysoniscrying  

What are the Signs of Sensory Processing Disorder?

Here are some of the basic symptoms. The SPD Foundation has a sensory processing disorder checklist that covers more detailed categories and particular age groups. 


  • extreme response  to or fear of  loud noises
  • distracted by background noises others do not notice
  • fearful of being touched and avoids hugs and physical interaction  
  • poor balance and body control, tripping and stumbling often


  • lacks awareness of personal space around peers
  • seems clumsy and lacks coordination
  • constantly touches people or objects even when inappropriate or asked not to 
  • harms other children and/or animals by playing too rough
  • has difficulty transitioning from one activity to another 
  • high tolerance for pain
  • extremely energetic and unable to sit still 
  • ignores warnings of danger and engages in risky behavior

I can easily identify my son as extremely energetic, though he participates in group activities that require him to be still in our toddler classes and library groups. He definitely lacks awareness of personal space and plays too rough.

How is SPD related to Autism and ADHD?

Sensory processing is a significant difficulty for people on the autism spectrum. On the reverse, having sensory processing disorder does not mean your child is autistic. People may experience SPD and not show any signs of autism. 

Is it SPD or ADHD? Another highly debated topic and often misdiagnosed disorder, ADHD is commonly associated with sensory processing disfunction but there are clear distinctions. 

A child with ADHD may be hyperactive, have difficulty paying attention, completing tasks and following directions on a daily basis regardless of his surroundings, at home or at school. ADHD symptoms are present with or without sensory stimulation.

Whereas a child with SPD may only be hyperactive and have a hard time focusing in certain situations or environments. Removing the offensive stimulation, leaving the area and adhering to a consistent sensory diet can resolve the behavioral problems.  

Did I Cause This?

Oh my god, did I do this to my son? My first thought ofcourse. Every parent worries they are to blame for their child’s issues on any level. 

The causes of SPD are largely unknown at this point. As with many developmental/behavioral disorders, the cause is most likely a result of genetic and environmental triggers. 

Is it a learning disorder? Though having SPD can make it more difficult for children to thrive in a typical educational atmosphere, it is not a learning disorder. Understanding how your child responds to sensory triggers can help in determining what learning environment will be best for him.

What Next?

Sensory processing disorder can cause many problems for the affected child and their family if left untreated. Social anxiety, emotional distress and low self esteem due to difficulty being in group situations, academic failure and poor self control. 

An accurate assessment by a trained occupational therapist is the first step. If your child is diagnosed with SPD then you should begin working with a clinician who can help you understand your child’s challenges and help him foster proper responses to sensation in all environments. Over time your child will begin to repair the neurological structures that process stimulation, making everyday activities easier and enjoyable again. 

Resources for SPD  

If you are concerned your child may have Sensory Processing Disorder you should request a comprehensive evaluation, including your pediatrician, a psychologist and an occupational therapist trained in sensory issues. 

To find a therapist go to



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