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Does My Child Have a Sensory Disorder?

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Does My Child Have a Sensory Disorder?

May 30, 2022

Sensory disorders in children have recently been added as an official psychiatric diagnosis and are estimated to impact as many as 15% of kids in the US. These conditions are marked by a significant sensitivity to sounds, textures, tastes, or brightness and can be quite disruptive to their behavior and development. Pediatrician Cindy Gellner, MD, explains why these conditions are on the rise, and how a parent can identify and accommodate them.

Episode Transcript

It seems there has been a big increase in the number of children being diagnosed with sensory disorders. One reason may be that kids with sensory issues actually have other diagnoses, such as ADHD, anxiety, PTSD from abuse, and autism, just to name a few examples. Other times, some kids may just be sensitive to some things but not others and don't actually meet the full criteria. It has only recently been added to the psychiatry diagnosis textbook, the DSM-5.

Sensory processing disorders are basically where kids are sensitive to sounds, textures, or other stimuli to the point where it is beyond normal childhood behavior and causing a disruption in the child's life and also in the life of the family. Any of the five senses, taste, touch, smell, sight, and sound can be affected. Often children with sensory issues also have poor fine motor skills or have a hard time with social cues and interactions. They have a hard time regulating their emotions.

One study shows that sensory processing disorders affect 5% to 15% of school-aged children. Another study showed that there may be a biological cause with abnormalities in the white matter of a child's brain that could explain sensory issues.

Some children are hypersensitive to things and may think everything is too loud or too bright. They are the ones who are covering their ears often or have a low pain threshold or are super picky with eating certain textures. They have a hard time focusing and controlling their emotions, and they don't like to be touched. Other children are hyposensitive and they crave input, trying to get more sensory input. They're more likely to have a high pain threshold, put things in their mouths, hug too tightly, invade other people's personal space, or rock and sway.

One big issue is that there is still so much to be learned about sensory processing disorders. Your pediatrician can suspect your child has a sensory processing disorder but cannot actually make the diagnosis. Again, there are so many other brain issues that can present with similar symptoms so it takes a developmental or a behavioral specialist or even a neuropsychologist to get an official diagnosis. Your pediatrician will refer your child to someone who can help do a full and complete evaluation to get the correct diagnosis. The mainstay of treatment for sensory processing disorders is occupational therapy. Occupational therapists can help kids and parents learn ways to manage their sensory needs.

If you have concerns that your child may have a sensory issue, please talk to your child's pediatrician and ask them for a referral to a specialist who can get them the right diagnosis and treatment.