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Sensory Processing Issues in a Child

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Some children struggle to process sensory information that they see, hear, taste, feel or touch. They may also have difficulty with balance.

Sensory Processing Disorder

A child who acts out regularly for no apparent reason may have sensory processing issues known as Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD). SPD can be defined as an inability to use sensory information to function normally in everyday life. It has a physiological as well as a psychological basis and may be caused by early childhood trauma. Though common among kids who come from “hard places,” SPD is frequently misunderstood and misdiagnosed. As a matter of fact, it can easily be mistaken for ADHD. Parents can help by learning more about SPD and how to manage it.

Sensation—touch, taste, sight, hearing, balance—and the skillful interpretation and use of sensation are not the same thing. We are born with the one. However, the other is honed and shaped as a child moves through the natural stages of growth and development. Babies fine-tune their perception of sensory information. This happens primarily within the context of a safe environment and nurturing experiences with a loving caregiver. A nursing child snuggles close to her mother’s breast and looks into her mother’s eyes. Then, she sees her own expression mirrored in her mother’s face. As this happens, her brain begins to form healthy neural and chemical connections. Thus, she is enabled to grasp the meaning of these sensory interactions with her environment. Early difficulties of any kind can interrupt this natural developmental flow. This may cause sensory processing issues that surface later in the form of behavioral and learning difficulties.

Types of Sensory Processing Disorders

SPD is not a single specific disorder. Instead, it’s an umbrella term that covers a variety of neurological disabilities, including the following sub-types:

Sensory Modulation Disorder

  • Sensory over-responsivity is when the child is subject to sensory overload. Simple sensations of sight, sound, and touch overwhelm or terrify him.
  • Another possibility is sensory under-responsivity if the child is lethargic and seems unmoved by sensory stimulation.
  • Or, sensory seeking may be the issue when a child craves more and more sensations of various kinds. (Examples are spinning, hanging upside down, jumping, etc.).

Sensory Discrimination Disorder

  • This refers to a case in which a child has difficulty differentiating between stimuli, or misgauges the importance of sensory messages. As a result, he has problems with body awareness and the interpretation of visual-spatial relations.

Sensory-Based Motor Disorder

  • A child may have difficulty with her posture.
  • A child displays an inability to plan and carry out simple tasks. This is known as dyspraxia.

Children with sensory processing issues may experience difficulties with a number of issues. They may struggle with touch, visual and auditory senses, balance and motion awareness or “position” or “muscle sense”. In turn, these difficulties can sometimes trigger “out of control” behavior that is misinterpreted as “misbehaving,” disobedience or ADHD.

Recognizing the Symptoms of SPD

SPD often goes undiagnosed for the simple reason that its symptoms mimic those of several other childhood disorders. For example, ADHD, learning disabilities, speech and language problems, poor auditory or visual discrimination may be suspected. Likewise, the symptoms of allergies, nutritional deficiencies and emotional imbalances might resemble SPD.

Therefore, parents can help by becoming skillful detectives, and learning to discern the signs of SPD through careful observation. Here are some practical strategies to keep in mind:

  1. Know the risk factors. Be familiar with issues that can contribute to the development of sensory processing issues. There are six major risk factors to be aware of.
    1. Stressful pregnancy
    2. Difficult birth
    3. Early hospitalization
    4. Abuse
    5. Neglect
    6. Trauma
  2. Look for tell-tale signs. When parenting any child, it’s important to realize her “misbehavior” often conceals a subtle cry for help. It’s possible many of the aggravating things your child does can be best understood as survival tactics. Kids with SPD— especially those who suffer from sensory overload—often manifest a fight, flight, fright, or freeze reaction to sensory input. Therefore, parents can help by spending time watching a child to see if her behavior might fit into any of these categories. Does she avoid interaction with other children or display an aversion to transitions? Or, does she overreact to loud noises or bright lights? Be aware of the “sensory triggers” that seem to “set her off” or lead to “meltdowns.”

Responding to the Signs and Symptoms

Document your observations. Parents can help by keeping a journal where they record the specifics of  their child’s behavior. This should be done  at different periods of the day. For example, they can write notes in the early morning, before and after meals, at school and at home. And, they should watch for patterns that have a potential connection with sensory processing issues. Carol Kranowitz’s book, The Out-of-Sync Child, provides several detailed checklists that can help parents recognize symptoms. 

Consult with a specialist who deals with children with sensory processing issues. Sometimes, the data collected leads parents to believe that their child may be struggling with sensory processing issues. If so, they can seek out the assistance of a professional who is trained to diagnose problems of this nature. This consultation may take one of two forms. There is a short, informal screening, during which the examiner looks for developmental deficiencies. Also, she checks to see whether the child has acquired certain specific skills. On the other hand, a full evaluation may be conducted. This could be done by an occupational therapist, developmental optometrist or audiologist. And, a speech/language pathologist, pediatrician, psychologist, special education specialist, and/or social worker may also conduct an evaluation.

Sensory Issues or Behavioral Reactions?

Sometimes it’s hard for parents to tell if a child is being naughty or dealing with sensory processing issues. So, here’s a way for parents to determine which is the case.

It’s likely a behavioral issue if:

An audience of some sort is required

The behavior will stop once the “need” has been met

The child has a specific need or want

The child is likely to use their eyes to convey emotion

It’s likely a sensory processing issue if:

There’s no regard to whether there’s an audience or not

The behavior may continue even after the “need” has been met

The child may not be able to verbalize what she wants—or the want may change

The child likely will avoid eye contact

Reasons to Be Encouraged

Before saying anything else, we want to offer parents of children with sensory processing issues a word of encouragement. There is hope for every child who struggles with Sensory Processing Disorder. Here, as in almost every area of parenting children, the bad news and the good news are the same. The human brain is plastic, and as a result can always reorganize itself. And, it may do so to deal with danger and trauma. Or it may need to adapt to a new environment of safety and trust.

Parents can help by beginning to build a new foundation and counteracting the effects of early sensory deprivation. This may be accomplished by working with an occupational therapist who specializes in sensory integration (OT/SI). Choose a therapist who makes a point of working with parent and child together.

Also, remember that  therapy sessions are only a jumping-off point for work you’ll do with your child at home. In between visits with the OT, help your child interpret and verbalize his sensory experiences in meaningful words. And, build his self-esteem by telling him, “You are an extremely sensitive person. You experience the world in a way that most people can’t.” Become his advocate at school, church, or in the neighborhood. Stand up for him wherever there are people who don’t understand sensory processing issues.

Good Treatment Takes Time

The treatment needs to be holistic in nature—it must take the whole child into account. Furthermore, it must proceed by way of a complete restructuring of his environment. We can make up for the sensory deprivation a child suffered during his early years. We start over at the beginning and “re-do” the entire developmental process. But this takes time. Even under ideal circumstances, the human brain requires three years of mentoring to develop normal sensory processing. Parents can help kids with SPD by investing a significant amount of time in bringing their child back “online.” Healing comes from deep, intuitive insight into the child’s early experiences and a patient reversal of the negative effects.

How to Help Your Child

There’s no “quick fix” for SPD. However, parents can help by building a sensory-rich environment and engaging in playful interaction. Also, providing sensory activities for a child with sensory processing issues can be helpful. Parents can actually begin to change a child’s brain chemistry. Consider the activities listed below.

  1. Try alerting activities for an under-responsive child. These include crunching food, taking a shower, bouncing a ball, crashing and bumping, or jumping on a trampoline.     
  2. Use calming activities for an over-stimulated child. Encourage sucking, rocking, swaying, back-rubs, pushing against walls, or taking a bath.
  3. Teach organizing activities for children who have trouble regulating their responses to stimuli. Work on chewing, hanging by their hands, pushing or pulling, or assuming an upside-down position.
  4. Introduce activities to develop the tactile sense. Engage in water play, finger painting, sand play or handling pets.
  5. Work on activities to develop the vestibular system. Help your child with rolling, swinging, sliding, jogging, or balancing on a teeter-totter.
  6. Include activities to develop the proprioceptive system. Encourage lifting and carrying heavy loads, pushing, pulling, and making a “people sandwich”. Position your child between two pillows or mattresses and apply pressure to the top of the “sandwich”.
  7. Offer activities to develop the visual sense. Guide your child in making shapes, jigsaw puzzles, building blocks, cutting activities, mazes, and dot-to-dot activities.
  8. Provide activities to develop motor skills. Have fun with flour-sifting, stringing beads, and collecting and organizing shells, buttons, or bottle caps.
  9. Engage in activities to develop motor planning. Make games out of jumping from a table, walking like animals, or playground games like Simon Says.
  10. Encourage activities that promote bilateral coordination. Work with your child on catching a ball, body rhythms, ribbon dancing, jumping, swimming, and riding a bike.

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Pastor Kevin Thompson

Kevin A. Thompson (MDiv, Beeson Divinity School) is lead pastor at Community Bible Church, a growing multi-site church with four locations in western Arkansas. Every year he meets with nearly one hundred couples with a range of needs, from pre-marital counseling to navigating the most serious betrayals. A marriage and parenting conference speaker, he and his wife, Jenny, have two children and live in Fort Smith, Arkansas. He blogs at kevinathompson.com.

Cover image of Kevin Thompson's book "Friends, Partners & Lovers"

Friends, Partners, and Lovers: What It Takes to Make Your Marriage Work

With engaging stories and clear, simple language, pastor Kevin Thompson shows how to live out three distinct roles in marraige. Using solid biblical principles, he helps you and your spouse grow your friendship, be supportive partners through the good times and the bad, and develop a healthy and satisfying sex life.

Sharing Your Faith with Grace and Purpose

You can confidently and lovingly share your faith—you just need to learn some new tactics to do so! In this Focus on the Family Daily Broadcast, apologist Greg Koukl outlines the “Columbo” tactic of asking questions, the “self-defeating argument” tactic to find holes in your opponent’s arguments, and other specific methods for engaging in faith-building conversations with others. Greg pulls from his over 30 years of experience debating atheists and agnostics to help you share your faith with grace and truth.

Mr. Greg Koukl

Greg Koukl is a writer, public speaker and talk show host who’s spent 30 years advocating for and defending the Christian worldview. Greg has written or contributed to 15 books, including The Story of RealityTactics, and Precious Unborn Human Persons. Greg has published nearly 230 articles and has spoken on 80 college and university campuses in the U.S. and abroad.

Tactics front cover

Tactics, 10th Anniversary Edition: A Game Plan for Discussing Your Christian Convictions

In a world increasingly indifferent to Christian truth, followers of Christ need to be equipped to communicate with those who do not speak their language or accept their source of authority. In Tactics, 10th Anniversary Edition, Gregory Koukl demonstrates how to artfully regain control of conversations, keeping them moving forward in constructive ways through thoughtful diplomacy. You’ll learn how to stop challengers in their tracks and how to turn the tables on questions or provocative statements. Most important, you’ll learn how to get people thinking about Jesus.

Understanding the Root of Your Child's Misbehavior - Part 1

Often, children act out because they are used to getting attention through bad behavior. Dr. Kevin Leman offers advice to help parents transform their child’s behavior. He discusses the benefits of allowing your kids to learn from real-life consequences and describes the importance of understanding your child’s temperament based on his birth order.

Dr. Kevin Leman

Dr. Kevin Leman

Dr. Kevin Leman is an internationally known family psychologist and an award-winning, New York Times best-selling author. He is also a popular public speaker and media personality who has made countless guest appearances on numerous radio and TV programs. Dr. Leman has written more than 50 books including The Birth Order BookHave a New Kid by Friday and Making Children Mind Without Losing Yours.

Bundle of Why Your Kids Misbehave

Why Your Kids Misbehave and What to Do about It

Tantrums. Talking back. Throwing toys or food. Meltdowns. Slamming doors. Kids know just how to push your buttons. You’ve tried all sorts of methods, but nothing seems to work. In this book, Dr. Kevin Leman reveals exactly why kids misbehave and how you can turn that behavior around with practical, no-nonsense strategies that really work . . . and are a long-term win for both of you.

Giving up Sugar, Tasting God's Goodness

As a latchkey kid, Wendy Speake turned to sugar for comfort. Every Friday, she would pedal to the candy show and use her allowance to fill her bag with candy. And one day, when she was older and a mom of three young boys, she came to realize that she was still “pedaling” away from her stress and using sugar as comfort, instead of turning to Jesus. She was joyless, worn out, tired, and in need of a change. In this interview, Wendy will challenge Christians to take 40 days to focus on fasting from something they turn to instead of Jesus for comfort. She invited people to break free from a dependence on sugar and taste the goodness of God.

Author Wendy Speake smiling as she holds up her book "The 40-Day Social Media Fast"

Mrs. Wendy Speake

With a background in Hollywood as a trained actress, Wendy Speake ministers to women as a bible teacher by applying the power of drama, poetry and comedy to the study of Scripture and real-life application of biblical truths. She has co-authored two books with Amber Lia titled Triggers: Exchanging Parents’ Angry Reactions for Gentle Biblical Responses and their latest, Parenting Scripts: When What You’re Saying Isn’t Working, Say Something New. Wendy is also the co-author (with Kelli Stuart) of Life Creative: Inspiration for Today’s Renaissance Mom.

Cover image of the book "The 40-Day Sugar Fast"

The 40-Day Sugar Fast: Where Physical Detox Meets Spiritual Transformation

Welcome to the 40-Day Sugar Fast, a fast that begins with us giving Jesus our sugar and ends with Jesus giving us himself–the only thing that can ever truly satisfy our soul’s deep hunger. On this 40-day journey you’ll learn how to stop fixating on food and other things you use to fill the voids in life and instead fix your eyes on Christ. Anyone who runs to sugar for comfort or a reward, who eats mindlessly or out of boredom, who feels physically and spiritually lethargic, or who struggles with self-control will discover here not only freedom from their cravings but an entirely new appetite for the good things God has for us.

Understanding the Root of Your Child's Misbehavior - Part 2

Often, children act out because they are used to getting attention through bad behavior. Dr. Kevin Leman offers advice to help parents transform their child’s behavior. He discusses the benefits of allowing your kids to learn from real-life consequences and describes the importance of understanding your child’s temperament based on his birth order.

Dr. Kevin Leman

Dr. Kevin Leman

Dr. Kevin Leman is an internationally known family psychologist and an award-winning, New York Times best-selling author. He is also a popular public speaker and media personality who has made countless guest appearances on numerous radio and TV programs. Dr. Leman has written more than 50 books including The Birth Order BookHave a New Kid by Friday and Making Children Mind Without Losing Yours.

Bundle of Why Your Kids Misbehave

Why Your Kids Misbehave and What to Do about It

Tantrums. Talking back. Throwing toys or food. Meltdowns. Slamming doors. Kids know just how to push your buttons. You’ve tried all sorts of methods, but nothing seems to work. In this book, Dr. Kevin Leman reveals exactly why kids misbehave and how you can turn that behavior around with practical, no-nonsense strategies that really work . . . and are a long-term win for both of you.

Loving Your Spouse Through the Seasons of Marriage - Part 2

Debra Fileta has identified the four seasons of marriage that correspond with our natural seasons – spring (new life and new love), summer (things get hot!), fall (showing our true colors), and winter (long days ahead). In this interview, she will help couples better understand the four seasons of healthy relationships, what to expect during each one, and how to carefully navigate them for a stronger marriage.

Author Debra Fileta in the Focus on the Family broadcast studio

Debra Fileta

Debra Fileta is a licensed professional counselor specializing in relationship and marital issues. She is also a public speaker and the author of multiple books, including Married SexChoosing Marriage: Why It Has to Start With We > Me, Love in Every Season, and Are You Really OK: Getting Real About Who You Are, How You’re Doing, and Why It Matters. Debra’s popular relationship advice blog, TrueLoveDates.com, and her Love + Relationships podcast reach millions of people each year offering guidance on topics including love, sex, and marriage.

Love in Every Season: Understanding the Four Stages of a Healthy Relationship

Every relationship goes through four life-changing seasons: Spring. Summer. Fall. Winter. Each season plays an important role in taking your relationship to the next level. And depending on how you navigate each season, your relationship will either flourish and grow, or it will slowly die. Whether you’re single, dating, engaged or married, join licensed professional counselor and relationship expert, Debra Fileta as she takes you on an eye-opening psychological and spiritual journey through the four seasons that she has observed in every healthy relationship.

Reconciling Faith and Science in a Medical Crisis

Dr. Lee Warren is a neurosurgeon who has faced many heavy challenges in his life – from serving in the Iraq War to removing deadly brain tumors to experiencing the loss of a teenage son. He’ll share about his difficult quest to find answers to some of life’s toughest questions, while holding onto his faith in God and the sure hope of heaven

Headshot of Focus on the Family broadcast guest Dr. W. Lee Warren

Dr. Lee Warren

W. Lee Warren, M.D., is a brain surgeon , inventor, Iraq War veteran, and author of I’ve Seen the End of You: A Neurosurgeon’s Look at Faith, Doubt, and the Things We Think We Know, winner of the Christian Book Award®. His previous book, No Place to Hide, was included on the 2015 U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff’s Recommended Reading List. Dr. Warren has appeared on The 700 Club and the CBS Evening News, and his writings have been featured in Guideposts magazine. His Dr. Lee Warren Podcast, which is heard in more than 60 countries, helps listeners use the power of neuroscience, faith, and common sense to change their lives.

Cover image of Dr. Lee Warren's book "I've Seen the End of You"

I've Seen the End of You: A Neurosurgeon's Look at Faith, Doubt, and the Things We Think We Know

This gripping inspirational memoir grapples with the tension between faith and science—and between death and hope—as a seasoned neurosurgeon faces insurmountable odds and grief both in the office and at home.

Praying Scripture Over Your Child’s Life - Part 1

Jodie Berndt loves to pray for her children. She’s been doing that for the past thirty years. Now she helps other parents to talk to God, asking for the salvation of their kids, and for wisdom, self-discipline, purpose, a future and much more. She offers fun and practical encouragement that moms and dads can put to work immediately in their daily lives as they prepare their children for a life in Christ.

Headshot of Focus on the Family broadcast guest Jodie Berndt

Jodie Berndt

Jodie Berndt is a public speaker, a Bible teacher, and the the author of 10 books. Find out more about Jodie and get some free resources (including printable prayer cards and calendars) at her website, jodieberndt.com.

Cover image of Jodie Berndt's book "Praying the Scriptures for Your Children"

Praying the Scriptures Over Your Children

You will discover how using the Bible to shape your desires and requests opens the door to God’s provision—and frees us from things like worry and fear in our parenting! This expanded edition of the bestseller features updated content on issues like technology and identity, and comes with new material designed to invite children into the family prayer circle. Purchase now and receive 10% off your product.

Mothers and Sons: Being a Godly Influence - Part 1

Rhonda Stoppe describes her early motherhood challenges of raising a son, which was intimidating to her. She found help through group of older women mentors. She urges moms to see their role as ministry in shaping sons to be good and godly men. Rhonda outlines several practical suggestions to moms about spiritual training, how to communicate with boys, and supporting the father-son relationship as a wife.

Headshot of Rhonda Stoppe

Rhonda Stoppe

Drawing upon 35 years of experience as a mentor, pastor’s wife, and homeschool mom, Rhonda Stoppe offers encouragement and guidance to women as an author and public speaker. She is popularly known as the “No Regrets Woman,” as she is especially passionate about helping women live life without regrets. Rhonda’s books include Moms Raising Sons to Be MenReal Life Romance, and The Marriage Mentor, which she co-authored with her husband, Steve.

Cover image of Rhonda Stoppe's book "Moms Raising Sons to be Men"

Moms Raising Sons to Be Men

Mothers of boys have the special calling to shape future men of God. Popular speaker Rhonda Stoppe, mom to two sons, knows this opportunity is a challenge, a joy, and probably the most important work of a woman’s life. Drawing from years of experience, this inspirational resource will revive the faithfulness and fortitude a woman needs to partner with God as they shape the character and heart of a future godly man.

Identifying Triggers in Your Marriage Part 1

They were both convinced they had married the wrong person. From almost the very beginning of their marriage, Amber and Guy Lia experienced various tensions and personality clashes related to house cleaning, backseat driving, workaholism, and intimacy. In this two-day Focus on the Family broadcast, Amber and Guy discuss how they bravely faced the triggers head-on, and committed to working on their own relationships with Jesus. As you listen to the Lia’s story, you’ll feel hope that you, too, can see real marriage transformation!

Headshot of Guy and Amber Lia

Mr. and Mrs. Guy and Amber Lia and Mrs. Jean Daly

Amber Lia is a work-at-home mom, blogger, public speaker, and co-author of two best-selling books. Her husband, Guy, is a former TV, feature film, and VFX development and production executive who has worked on popular TV shows and films. Guy and Amber own Storehouse Media Group, a faith- and family-friendly TV and film production company based in Los Angeles,

Cover image of the book "Marriage Triggers" by Guy and Amber Lia

Marriage Triggers: How You and Your Spouse Can Exchange Angry Reactions for Gentle Biblical Responses

A husband-wife team offers practical advice for married couples to end the cycle of reactionary arguments by examining the most common issues that trigger disagreements and apply God’s Word to radically transform relationships.

What to Do When You're Not Okay - Part 1

Life can be pretty stressful. Between work, relationships, and other obligations, the pressure builds, and we lose sight of who we are. Counselor Debra Fileta helps you better understand your emotions, assess your mental, physical, and spiritual health, and intentionally pursue a path to wellbeing. In dealing with anxiety, depression, and panic attacks, Debra understands the importance of self-examination as well as the benefits of seeking professional help. She offers biblically-based advice, tools, and encouragement to help you get on a path toward healing and wholeness.

Author Debra Fileta in the Focus on the Family broadcast studio

Mrs. Debra Fileta

Debra Fileta is a licensed professional counselor specializing in relationship and marital issues. She is also a public speaker and the author of multiple books, including Married SexChoosing Marriage: Why It Has to Start With We > Me, Love in Every Season, and Are You Really OK: Getting Real About Who You Are, How You’re Doing, and Why It Matters. Debra’s popular relationship advice blog, TrueLoveDates.com, and her Love + Relationships podcast reach millions of people each year offering guidance on topics including love, sex, and marriage. Debra resides in Pennsylvania with her husband, John, and their four children.

Are You Really Okay?

Are You Really OK: Getting Real About Who You Are

In Are You Really OK? author and licensed counselor Debra Fileta challenges you to get real with who you are and how you’re doing spiritually, emotionally, mentally, and physically so you can recognize where you need growth and healing.

Navigating a Toxic Culture with Your Daughter - Part 1

As a pediatrician, Dr. Meg Meeker has seen thousands of girls come through her office through the years. They struggle with eating issues, sexual identity, social media…and many other challenges in this toxic culture. Dr. Meeker will encourage parents to invest love and time in their daughters and develop their character to give them the best opportunity for a bright future, all rooted in a spiritual foundation. The discussion also includes healthy feminism vs. toxic feminism

Mrs. Meg Meeker

Dr. Meg Meeker is a pediatrician who is widely recognized as one of the country’s leading authorities on parenting, teens and children’s health. With appearances on numerous nationally syndicated radio and TV programs, her popularity as a an expert on key issues confronting families has created a strong following across America. Her work with countless families over the years served as the inspiration behind her best-selling books which include Strong Fathers, Strong DaughtersStrong Mothers, Strong Sons and The Ten Habits of Happy Mothers

Cover image of Dr. Meg Meeker's book "Raising a Strong Daughter in a Toxic Culture"

Raising a Strong Daughter in a Toxic Culture: 11 Steps to Keep Her Happy, Healthy, and Safe

Meg Meeker has been a pediatrician for more than thirty years, is a mother and a grandmother, and has seen it all. She knows what makes for strong, happy, healthy young women–and what puts our daughters at risk. Combining that experience with her famous common sense, she explains the eleven steps that will help your daughter–whether she’s a toddler or a troubled teen–to achieve her full human potential.

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Newest Release - Episode 1: The Truth About Life!

In this episode, we will tackle tough questions like, “When does life begin?” and “What does the Bible
say about Life?” You’ll discover and understand the stages of pre-born life and that babies are more than
just a clump of cells!

Yes, I Promise to Pray for the Pre-born and Their Moms!

Will you pray for the pre-born and moms that are facing unexpected pregnancies? We will send you a 7-day prayer guide that will help guide you along this journey with us!! You can even choose to receive this great resource by text!