Your son’s second grade teacher calls to say she’s concerned about some of his behaviors in school:

  • He can’t sit still through a half-hour lesson and disrupts the class.
  • He often seems distracted and doesn’t pay attention to what she’s saying
  • He bumps into kids in the lunch line, making them angry.
  • He can’t hold a pencil correctly, so he struggles with handwriting.
  • He gets upset when asked to switch from one activity to another
  • He melts down during assemblies and has to leave the gym.

You had started noticing this type of behavior when your child was a toddler, but now it’s hurting his progress in school. You’ve been wondering if he might have ADHD. But his teacher tells you she thinks he may have sensory processing issues.

What are sensory processing issues?

Some kids seem to have trouble handling the information their senses take in—things like sound, touch, taste, sight, and smell. There are also two other less well-known senses that can be affected—the first is a sense of body awareness, while the second involves movement, balance, and coordination. Also, kids with sensory issues can be oversensitive to input, undersensitive to input, or both.

Overly sensitive kids respond easily to sensory stimulation and can find it overwhelming.

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While sensory processing issues are not a learning disorder or official diagnosis, they can make it hard for children to succeed at school. For instance, overly sensitive kids respond easily to sensory stimulation and can find it overwhelming. They may:

  • Be unable to tolerate bright lights and loud noises like ambulance sirens
  • Refuse to wear clothing because it feels scratchy or irritating-even after cutting out all the tags and labels-or shoes because they feel “too tight.”
  • Be distracted by background noises that others don’t seem to hear
  • Be fearful of surprise touch, and avoid hugs and cuddling even with familiar adults
  • Be overly fearful of swings and playground equipment
  • Often have trouble knowing where their body is in relation to other objects or people
  • Bump into people and things and appear clumsy
  • Have trouble sensing the amount of force they’re applying; for example, they may rip the paper when erasing, pinch too hard or slam down objects.
  • Run off, or bolt, when they’re overwhelmed to get away from whatever is distressing them
  • Have extreme meltdowns when overwhelmed

Meanwhile, undersensitive kids want to seek out more sensory stimulation. They may:

  • Have a constant need to touch people or textures, even when it’s not socially acceptable
  • Not understand personal space even when kids the same age are old enough to understand it
  • Have an extremely high tolerance for pain
  • Not understand their own strength
  • Be very fidgety and unable to sit still
  • Love jumping, bumping and crashing activities
  • Enjoy deep pressure like tight bear hugs
  • Crave fast, spinning and/or intense movement
  • Love being tossed in the air and jumping on furniture and trampolines.

You can see that these behaviors could be confused with the grade-schoolers who are undersensitive may display “negative behaviors” including what looks like hyperactivity, when in fact they’re seeking input. And in fact many of the behaviors of kids with sensory problems overlap with symptoms of ADHD, from trouble sitting still or concentrating to melting down when they are expected to make a transition from one activity (especially one they are enjoying) to another.

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