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Sensory Processing Disorder Looks Like Bad Behavior — But It’s Not

Mom.com logo Mom.com 9/20/2022 Rachel Garlinghouse
Sensory Processing Disorder SPD symptoms © Provided by Mom.com Sensory Processing Disorder SPD symptoms

We were enjoying a late morning of play at our local children’s museum when one of my kids started melting down. It progressively got worse, earning me plenty of side-eyes from fellow parents. I saw two moms, while looking at me and my kids, lean toward each other and start whispering.

This wasn’t the first or last time that my child struggled in a public setting

I picked them up and placed them, football style, under one of my arms and grabbed my backpack. I asked my other two kids to follow me. We went out the doors and to our minivan, while the child I was holding freaked out the entire time. After I buckled all my kids into their seats I plopped into the driver’s seat, sweaty and frustrated.

What was I doing wrong as a mom?

Other kids my child’s age [weren’t melting down like mine](https://mom.com/toddler/135399-when-its-more-typical-toddler-meltdown). After all, they were well past that developmental time in their lives when tantrums were completely normal behavior. _What was I missing?_

A few months later, after this incident (and many others), I got my answer.

I found out that my child had sensory processing disorder (SPD)

A few years after that, my child was also diagnosed with ADHD — which I learned can [go hand-in-hand with SPD](https://mom.com/baby/6875-sensory-processing-disorder).

Melissa McKaig, an experienced occupational school district therapist in the St. Louis Metro-East area, explained to Mom.com what SPD is. It’s a “complex condition which affects how a person’s brain processes the things they see, hear, smell, taste or touch,” McKaig said.

SPD “can affect all of your senses or just one,” McKaig continued, and can cause over or under responsiveness. A person will over-respond to stimuli by avoiding it or being sensitive to it. If someone is under-responsive, they require intense stimuli to react.

How does SPD manifest?

“When the multisensory input is not adequately processed, one is unable to react appropriately to the demands of the environment,” McKaig said, noting that this appears as “inappropriate behavior.”

She indicated that examples of sensory stimuli — that may create a response from a person with SPD — include, “multiple people talking at the same time, the room is too hot or too cold, there is an odor coming through the windows, or the room is lit with florescent lights.”

I like to say that certain stimuli are amplified in my child’s body and brain

Take, for example, a basketball game. There’s so much sensory input: the squeak of sneakers on the gym floor, the ref blowing their whistle, the scoreboard buzzer, the yells from the crowd, the bright lights, the smell of concession stand popcorn.

Sometimes simple tools help, like noise-canceling headphones and chewing gum. But often they are not enough when the situation is sensory overload. The experience puts my child on-edge, and this manifests as begging to leave or use the bathroom multiple times, complaining that they want their electronic device, or asking for multiple snacks from the concession area. The goal is to escape the over-stimuli.

Outsiders might believe the child is being naughty — complaining, fidgeting, growing agitated, trying to run off

As children get older, they’re expected to sit still and be quiet in many settings; however, the child’s SPD doesn’t allow rules to be prioritized over body and brain signals. All the child can focus on is how uncomfortable they are — not if their behaviors are socially or developmentally appropriate.

I have found that as my child gets older, we have learned how to navigate SPD with tools and techniques. We have help from our child’s school’s occupational therapist as well as outside occupational therapy. We guide our child, but we never punish them for SPD symptoms.

We have also accepted SPD as part of our child instead of trying to deny or ignore it

We’ve empowered our child to state their needs, and we’ve equipped them with tools to help when stimuli becomes too much. There are times we still have to leave a certain environment, but not as frequently as when our child was younger.

When your child’s sensory issues interfere with their ability to learn, socialize, or function day-to-day, it’s time to ask your child’s pediatrician for help. Occupational therapy can be helpful, including developing a “sensory diet” for the child. You can also research how to best assist your child, as well as explain to them what SPD is — and that no matter what, you’re a team.

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